Virginia Tries To Boil A Frog: The School Accreditation – Performance Disconnect Emerges Again

A lot of handwringing in Virginia over the prospect that the percent of schools with full accreditation from the state may drop again this year as standards rise (modestly).  The percent of schools that are accredited matters a lot. Because that figure has until recently been in the high 90s it has long functioned as the way the state’s iron-triangle of interests opposed to reform has fended-off efforts to improve the schools. ‘We don’t need reform, 96 percent of schools are fully accredited’ goes the argument.  It also matters because Virginia has no other accountability system, so accreditation is the whole ballgame. It also, of course, matters as a proxy for student learning.

A few thoughts on all this:

Virginia is fortunate that it has relatively few schools that are genuine fiascos. Schools where 10 percent of the students are proficient, for instance, are rare. That’s not the case in many other jurisdictions. There are pockets of acute problems, yes, but Virginia starts from a better place than many states.

But the commonwealth does have a pervasive problem of middling performance and big achievement gaps. That’s been obscured by an accreditation system which does not disaggregate by student subgroups (for instance racial and ethnic minorities or children with special needs) and only requires about 7 in 10 students to pass the state’s reading and math tests at an unambitious level of performance in order for a school to be accredited. Meanwhile, national media indexes that overweight inputs (income levels in Virginia for example) and underweight outputs (actual school outcomes) have created a culture of complacency.

This explains why Virginia could at once have an impressive number of schools accredited and such a feel good spirit about educational quality when at the same time only 17 percent of black students are proficient in reading by 8th-grade on the National Assessment of Education Progress (a college and career ready standard of performance as opposed to what constitutes passing under Virginia’s assessments). Just 17 percent of poor students reach that standard. And only 45 percent of white students. In math the numbers are no better, 17 percent of poor students, one in four Hispanic students, and just 15 percent of black students are proficient by 8th-grade across the commonwealth.

Bottom line: It’s safe to say that at best half of Virginia students are not leaving school at a genuine college/career ready level of performance. In last year’s graduating class 49 percent of students received the “advanced studies diploma,” which is the best approximation of a college/career ready standard of course taking and achievement. Slightly more than half of white students received that diploma, about a third of minority graduates did.

Reconciling this discrepancy – perceived high-performance and actual problematic performance – is as much a political problem as a substantive one. For a long time the prevailing ethos has been one emphasizing good news and happy talk rather than an honest accounting about educational performance. The embarrassment about Virginia’s absurdly low-expectations for some students as part of its No Child Left Behind waiver was an awkward light on all that.

Today, that even a modest bump in performance expectations can cause consternation and potentially cause so many schools to fall out of full-accreditation speaks volumes about where things are, the fragility of the quality myth and the enormous leadership challenge facing state policymakers to bring about genuine improvements aligning the reality of Virginia’s schools with the rhetoric about them.

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