Math Exam Trips Up 2 Schools in Alexandria

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Most Fairfax County schools did well enough on state standardized tests this year to be fully accredited by the state, but two middle schools did not make the grade because too many students failed the math exam.

High schools and middle schools are deemed fully accredited by the Virginia Department of Education when at least 70 percent of students pass standardized English, math, science and history exams. In elementary schools, three-quarters of students must pass the English test; target pass rates in other subjects vary.

Holmes and Glasgow middle schools, both diverse schools in the Alexandria section of the county, fell short in mathematics and were accredited with warning. As a result, the schools must create improvement plans.

School Board member Kaye Kory (Mason), whose district includes both schools, said she thinks some students struggled because it was only the second year that sixth- and seventh-graders have been required to take the math exams. Previously, math tests had been administered in third, fifth and eighth grades. Educators say scores on newer tests often are low as teachers and students adjust to them.

"I know the staffs at both middle schools are working hard to examine the results and to remediate and improve instruction methods to ensure that this doesn't happen again," Kory said.

Virginia rates its schools based on results of Standards of Learning, or SOL, exams, taken by students each spring. Math and reading SOL tests also are used to determine whether schools meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The pass rates used to determine accreditation ratings are adjusted by the state to reflect factors in each school. For example, credit is given to schools that successfully remediate students who initially failed the exams, and allowances are made for students who recently transferred into Virginia public schools.

Holmes had an adjusted pass rate of 54 percent in math, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Glasgow's adjusted pass rate in math was 57 percent. Both schools did better in English, with adjusted pass rates above 80 percent.

At Glasgow, where about 68 percent of students are learning English as a second language, teachers have focused on reading and writing in past years and made good progress, Principal Deirdre Lavery said. When last year's tests showed students were struggling in math, she said, she began searching for ways to improve those lessons.

This year the school hired a math coach, who is helping teachers find innovative ways to help struggling students and students who need more challenging material. After-school remediation includes a focus on math, and math teachers meet to brainstorm and plan lessons.

"We struggled," Lavery said. "I don't anticipate we'll be in the same boat next year."

Lavery said she is looking forward to suggestions from state and local educators, who will conduct an academic review of the school. "I think we're doing a lot of good stuff," she said. "But for somebody from the outside . . . to say, 'this is really good, but you may want to put some extra effort here.' That's very helpful."

Fairfax's accreditation picture mirrors the situation statewide. Across Virginia, 91 percent of public schools were fully accredited this year. But only 69 percent, or 218, of the state's middle schools earned the top rating. State education officials said middle schools' performance on the mathematics tests is improving but remains a challenge for many schools.

"Virginia's expectations for achievement in mathematics are challenging, especially in the middle grades as students prepare for algebra and geometry," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannaday Jr. said. "Teachers are working hard to help students master the knowledge and critical-thinking skills that are assessed on the grade-level mathematics tests introduced two years ago, and I am confident that their efforts will result in more middle schools earning full accreditation."

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the old math exams covered material the students had learned over several years. The new exams, given to each grade, are more difficult because they go "deeper into the content each year," he said.

Pyle said the state has created online videos, available on the Virginia Department of Education Web site, that include tips on how to help students.

"They give teachers some fresh approaches on how to teach some of the content," he said.

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