Test scores will play a smaller role in determining whether schools in Virginia receive the state's stamp of approval, regulators decided Thursday, with credit given for signs of improvement and for narrowing long-existing achievement gaps.
Currently, schools' accreditation status is determined almost entirely by student pass rates on the Standards of Learning tests, which some educators have criticized for failing to measure improvement between school years.
But members of the state Board of Education appeared determined Thursday to revise that approach, voting 8 to 1 to overhaul the accreditation system.
Steven R. Staples, the state's superintendent of public instruction, heralded the revised standards for placing an emphasis on improvement.
"Schools will be rewarded for the success of students who are on a trajectory toward meeting Virginia's high expectations, even if they are not quite there," Staples said in a statement. "This addresses an inequity in our current system which sometimes labels schools serving children in poverty as failing when in fact students are making great strides and showing high growth from one year to the next."
Under the new standards, students will no longer have to take state a exam in social studies to graduate. They will still have to take tests in English, math and science.
Either Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) or his successor, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D), will review the changes, along with the state education secretary. The revised standards are expected to go into effect in fall 2018.
Under the current system, schools are granted full or varying degrees of accreditation — or denied accreditation — depending on how students perform on tests.
Under the new system, schools will be rated on standards that include overall proficiency and growth in English, math and science. They will also be assessed on absenteeism and, in high schools, dropout rates and college or career readiness.
The state will assign a rating for each of the bench marks — level 1 signifies a school is meeting or exceeding expectations, level 2 means a school is near or making adequate progress toward hitting standards and level 3 indicates a school has fallen below standards.
Based on those ratings, a school will receive accreditation, or, if a school receives one or more level 3 rating, accredited with conditions.
Right now, a school can be denied accreditation if not enough students pass state tests for four consecutive years. The new standards would change that. Schools will forfeit the state's stamp of approval only if they fail to implement plans to improve.
The revised standards also require students to demonstrate qualities such as creativity and critical thinking.
Those changes, coupled with a greater focus on career and technical or advanced training, represent "an important shift away from testing toward opportunities," Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, said in an email.
But Pianta also said that, with more schools likely to receive full accreditation under the changed system, the Virginia Department of Education must conduct reviews to ensure the system is improving education for the state's schoolchildren.
Not all Board of Education members fully supported the revised standards.
Board member James H. Dillard, the only dissenting vote, lamented that the new standards de-emphasize social studies.
Local school districts will still test students on social studies, but with no statewide exam, Dillard questioned whether the state will be able to adequately gauge students' understanding of the world.
"What is the fate of Virginia studies and civic and economics?" Dillard said. "I have a real concern that if we're not careful, they're going to go away."