Brandon Davis, principal of the Cora Kelly School for Math, Science, and Technology in Alexandria, Va. (Washington Post file photo)

As schools were busy readying students for state exams, teachers at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, a high-poverty school in Alexandria, were poring over data to determine which students would probably not do well on the tests.

But according to a school district investigation, the effort wasn’t aimed at giving those students extra help. Instead, Principal Brandon Davis allegedly told teachers this spring to call the parents of students who appeared on the brink of failing the exams to inform them of their right to opt out of the tests, according to the investigation. Three dozen parents decided to pull their children from the state Standards of Learning exams; no parents at the school had done so the previous year.

The move, which meant those students’ scores would not be considered for state accreditation purposes, probably artificially inflated the school’s overall performance and masked the fact that some students were not performing up to standards. It also means the data used to evaluate the school is potentially flawed and presents evidence that a new Virginia law allowing students to opt out of tests without it affecting a school’s rating could compromise the ability to assess schools.

The findings of the report, which the Virginia Department of Education released to The Washington Post on Thursday, come a week before the state publishes its accreditation ratings. The state Department of Education reported that there has been a rise in the number of opt-outs as a result of the new Virginia law.

Alexandria school officials said Davis told teachers “to identify students who may not do well on the SOL test, and contact parents of these students regarding their right to refuse SOL testing.” The students whose parents were contacted had scored 425 or below on exams; a 400 is the passing rate.

Helen Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the district, said that teachers told parents only about their right to opt out and about the state law, passed in the spring, which would mean their child’s score of zero would not negatively impact the school’s accreditation rating. The report does not explain why Davis would instruct teachers to place calls only to parents of students who were on the brink of failing.

Lloyd said Davis was disciplined, but declined to comment further, citing personnel confidentiality. Davis remains the principal at Cora Kelly.

“ACPS regrets that this happened,” Superintendent Alvin L. Crawley said in a statement Thursday. “ACPS believes the principal exercised poor judgment, and we took the appropriate actions as a result.”

Davis did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement released in July in response to inquiries from the Alexandria Gazette Packet — which reported that Davis was being disciplined for contacting parents about opting out of tests — Davis apologized: “I wish to stress that I did not do anything that I perceived was intentionally wrong at the time.” The statement in July did not indicate that the school only contacted families of low-
performing students.

Davis came under investigation just months after he was named Distinguished Principal of the Year by the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals. It was an accolade he earned after overseeing massive gains in test scores at a school that serves mostly black and Hispanic students; 87 percent of Cora Kelly’s students qualified for free and reduced-price meals last year. He also received a Washington Post Distinguished Education Leadership Award in 2014.

Accountability experts say standardized tests are an important way to keep tabs on achievement gaps. Civil rights advocates say efforts to remove poor performers from the testing pool undermine the ability to discover — and advocate for — students who are underachieving.

“This is no different from the cheating scandals that other districts have had,” said Kati Haycock, chief executive of the Education Trust, an advocacy group. “Kids who are not tested do not count. . . . If schools can push out, opt out their poor kids, their kids of color, their disproportionately low-achieving kids, they will never do the work to get those kids to achieve at high levels.”

“I’m just horrified,” Haycock said, noting that she has seen schools opting out “the children who make them look bad.”

Whether schools should face sanctions for low test participation rates has become a matter of national debate. The Education Department is finalizing new federal rules regarding such consequences.

Cora Kelly has been lauded for its high performance on test scores. Last year, Cora Kelly was accredited after seeing gains of between 8 and 12 points in every subject.

The school system said it learned of the phone calls to parents before the exams were given and that officials called the parents back to ensure they understood the opt-out process. Eleven of the 37 families opted back in to take the tests.

Karen Graf, chairman of the Alexandria School Board, said she is confident in the integrity of the scores: “It seems that the superintendent and the state did a thorough review and that the test was administered after the unfortunate scenario was discovered.”

Emma Brown contributed to this report.