Virginia school officials have proposed a new accountability plan to identify struggling schools, but the plan gives few specifics for how to boost their performance.
The plan is part of the state’s effort to comply with the federal law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The proposal contains far fewer concrete prescriptions for schools that consistently fall short of benchmarks because federal law no longer requires it. Instead, it gives state and local authorities more freedom to decide how to turn around low-performing schools.
Passed on July 27 by the state board of education, the proposal now heads to the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who must sign off before it is submitted to the U.S. Education Department. It is expected to take effect in the 2018-19 school year.
The federal law, enacted in 2015, radically amended requirements for public schools. Unlike its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, ESSA does not require drastic overhauls of persistently underperforming schools and shifts much of the authority over how to deal with them to the states.
Many states, including Virginia, celebrated the shift, saying that the old requirements were overly prescriptive.
So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have submitted accountability plans to the federal government. Many, like Virginia’s, contain far fewer specifics for dealing with the worst-performing schools. Some have criticized those plans, saying that schools that fail vulnerable groups — like minorities and English language learners — won’t be held accountable.
Under Virginia’s proposal, schools will be identified as requiring either “comprehensive support and improvement" — when school-wide test scores fall short of benchmarks — or “targeted support and improvement” — when a subgroup falls short.
Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said that terminology can be hard for parents to understand. The institute, an education think tank, is monitoring ESSA plans across the country.
Some states give schools letter grades. The District of Columbia plans to rate them on a five-star scale.
“Easy to understand labels, such as A through F letter grades, provide clear signals to parents, citizens and educators about the quality of a school and can nudge them towards improvement,” Northern said at the July state board meeting. She called the Virginia plan’s labels “weak or indecipherable” and “rather meaningless.”
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the state’s accountability program offers parents user-friendly data to evaluate schools, including an online dashboard.
Lynn Sodat, the state education official who oversees the plan, said the new law allows states and school systems to craft their own methods for boosting troubled schools, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all model.
Calling it “much more aligned approach,” Sodat said it “will make a lot more sense for schools.”
Gone from the plan are radical interventions previously required for schools labeled “persistently low-achieving.” Those schools were required to close, convert to charters, get new principals or submit to a host of instructional changes and professional development. T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va. got the label in 2010. It replaced its principal, added school counselors and conducted intense professional development. Higher test scores and graduation rates followed.
In addition, the lowest-performing Title I schools — those that get federal aid to help address poverty — were labeled “priority” or “focus” schools. They were required to employ state-approved improvement coaches and turnaround partners.
The Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria and Belmont Elementary in Prince William County were labeled priority schools last school year, along with 34 others statewide. Another 72 were labeled “focus” schools.
The new proposal calls for less-onerous interventions in schools that fall short. The proposal says failing schools should “implement interventions to improve student performance in reading and math,” but offers few specifics beyond that.
“It will really mean different things for different schools,” said Sodat.
The proposal also calls for recognizing academic growth in schools. It introduces a new metric — the “combined rate” — which gives credits to schools for both the students who pass exams and those who make significant improvement from the previous year, even if they do not pass. It also rewards schools when students who had previously failed pass their exams.
“It sort of provides credit to schools for more than just a passing score,” Sodat said. “It really allows us to meaningfully differentiate in a more nuanced way.”
The Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers, criticized the plan for failing to spell out how teachers will be involved.
“School improvement discussions should include all perspectives,” Antoinette Rogers, a VEA official, told the board, “starting with classroom teachers and education support professionals.”