Virginia map showing Bristol

Virginia lawmakers approved school reforms earlier this year that included a new A-F system of grading individual schools. Gov. Bob McDonnell championed the change, saying it was an easy way for parents to understand how well their children’s schools were actually doing. Critics think otherwise.

In the following important post, Mark Lineburg, the superintendent of schools in Bristol, Va., his assistant superintendent, and two academic researchers challenge the soundness of McDonnell’s new reform, arguing that the grading system will unfairly affect high-poverty schools and that these schools perform better than commonly believed. The system will, the authors write, “exacerbate the current academic disparities that typify” Virginia public education. That is why they are urging that the system be changed or repealed.

Co-authors of the piece, with Lineburg, are Rex Gearheart, assistant superintendent of Bristol Public Schools;  John Iskra, chairman of the mathematics department at Emory and Henry College; and  Richard Salmon, a nationally known professor at Virginia Tech.

Lineburg has been running the small high-poverty rural Bristol schools for three years. In an e-mail, he said that he and the three other co-authors worked for three months collecting and analyzing data that is presented in their piece. He wrote: “We believe this document gives you the clearest evidence ever articulated on why the standardized test movement is unfair.”

The issue of how these grading systems work and don’t work goes beyond the boundaries of Virginia. It was pioneered in Florida by Jeb Bush in Florida when he was governor from 1999 to 2007, and has spread to other states that followed Bush’s test-based reform model. When McDonnell was trying to sell the grading system to the legislature, he sought help from Bush said earlier this year. Bush said, “Of all the things that we did, grading schools probably had the quickest impact that propelled Florida from literally the bottom of the pack to above the national average,” according to the Daily Press.

Actually, researchers have shown otherwise; you can read this post analyzing the Florida results, by Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute. Furthermore, an independent examination of  Oklahoma’s system, passed in 2011 to emulate Florida’s, concluded that the system is flawed and the grades given to schools are “misleading.

Here’s the piece about Virginia’s system.

By Mark Lineburg, Rex Gearheart, John Iskra and  Richard Salmon,

The 2013 Virginia General Assembly, with the strong support of Governor Bob McDonnell, passed House and Senate bills creating A-F School Report Cards that will exacerbate the current academic disparities that typify the Virginia system of public elementary and secondary education. Since the inception of the No Child Left Behind Act[1], the primary federal goal of our public schools has been to close achievement gaps for economically-disadvantaged students.  While gains have been made to improve achievement for students in poverty, overall test scores in schools with high poverty rates continue to lag behind more affluent schools that serve fewer students who live in poverty. It is no surprise that 85 percent of the schools that would score a C or below under the new rating scale have student poverty rates higher than 50 percent. In fact, the average free and reduced price lunches rate for the 52 schools that would have a D or F on their report card is an astounding 78 percent. These schools are also prime candidates to be taken over by the state under the Governor’s Opportunity Education Institute if substantial gains in overall student achievement are not made quickly.

According to language on the Virginia Department of Education website, the rationale for adopting this new A-F scale was to make it simpler for parents and others to determine how individual public schools and school divisions were performing compared with others across the Commonwealth.  While the system will not go into effect until 2014, preliminary data based on state achievement scores allow us to estimate what each school’s grade will be on the new A-F scale.  These data are easily found on the school division report card, which can be accessed on the DOE web site.  One can view and analyze achievement data by local division and individual school. These data are sorted into scoring groups so both professionals and lay persons can compare scores for overall student achievement against pass rates for students in poverty where achievement gaps invariably exist.

When an A-F grading system is applied to each school division to simplify the process, the assigned letter grades are alleged to reveal precisely and accurately how each school and division has performed.  Because the entire accountability movement of the past twenty years has focused primarily on closing achievement gaps for economically-disadvantaged students, it is possible to pair selected school divisions across the state and contrast their achievement results.  Contained in Table 1 are matched school divisions that would have scored either A’s or B’s on the new scale contrasted to school divisions that would have fallen short, earning a C or below based on English reading scores. These data can be found on page 4 of each school division’s or school’s report card.


3-Year |
# Of Schools
w/C or Below
English Performance
Albemarle County 27.28 80 78 76 78 0
Bristol 63.67 84 81 79 82 2
Chesapeake 33.1 84 84 85 84 0
Danville 75.66 81 78 78 79 2
Falls Church 6.93 69 81 71 74 0
Fauquier County 23.42 82 78 79 80 0
Henrico 37.13 82 80 81 81 2
Loudoun 17.19 82 76 75 78 0
Norfolk 66.05 74 74 76 75 15
Petersburg 74.81 68 73 75 72 4
Richmond City 76.9 80 78 76 78 11
Roanoke City 71.13 75 75 80 77 3
State Average 40.1 81 76 71 76

Based on a three-year average:

  • Did Danville City (79%) or Loudoun County (78%) score highest?
  • Did Bristol City (82%) or Falls Church City (74%) score highest?
  • Did Richmond City (78%) or Albemarle County (78%) score highest?

Contained in Table 2 are the Percent of Economically Disadvantaged Students Who Passed the Mathematics examination, calculated as a three-year average. Note that the first column provides the percent of students who received free and reduced price lunches, and the last column shows the number of schools per division that are projected to receive a C or below on their school report card.


# Of Schools
w/C or Below
Math Performance
Albemarle County 27.28 82 80 53 72 0
Bristol 63.67 83 79 52 71 2
Chesapeake 33.1 86 81 56 74 0
Danville 75.66 82 80 62 75 2
Falls Church 6.93 77 77 72 75 0
Fauquier County 23.42 76 76 54 69 0
Henrico 37.13 80 77 53 70 2
Loudoun 17.19 76 74 51 67 0
Norfolk 66.05 76 72 47 65 15
Petersburg 74.81 73 67 49 63 4
Richmond City 76.9 80 74 42 65 11
Roanoke City 71.13 73 75 59 69 3
State Average 40.1 80 78 54 71

The Mathematics examination data displayed in Table 2 demonstrate which school divisions have better prepared their economically-disadvantaged students for high-stakes state achievement tests.  Remember that closing the achievement gap for economically-disadvantaged students was and still is the primary purpose behind the entire accountability movement.

*Note that the 69% pass rate in mathematics for economically-disadvantaged students posted by Roanoke City surpassed the 67% reported by the affluent Loudoun County School division.

*The 71% reported for Bristol City exceeded the 69% indicated by Fauquier County school division.

*For school year 2012, the more rigorous mathematics examination results achieved by the struggling Petersburg City, a division on the Governor’s takeover list, achieved a similar pass rate reported by Loudoun County, which is ranked among the wealthiest counties in the United States; yet the 51% pass rate on the mathematics examination reported by Loudoun County for students in poverty barely exceeded the 49% posted by Petersburg City.

The above achievement data for economically disadvantaged students were drawn from a sample of 12 school divisions across the Commonwealth. These data are real and provide compelling evidence that a grading scale that measures all students aggregately is grossly misleading.

For example, in a demographic comparison of Bristol City school division, where I am superintendent, to the affluent and similarly-sized Falls Church school division, Falls Church has a poverty rate of 7%, which is hardly comparable to the 65% served by Bristol City.  Interestingly, Falls Church enrolled 155 students who were classified as economically disadvantaged, a number that barely exceeded our 145 homeless students; and while we serve nearly 1,500 economically-disadvantaged students, we are graded on the same performance scale as Falls Church despite having almost 1000% more economically disadvantaged students on our class rolls. A simple mathematical analysis allows us to project the data for Falls Church, and if they had the same poverty rate as Bristol City then Bristol would score 4 percent better on overall English tests than Falls Church over the past three-year cycle. In other words, if Falls Church had Bristol’s 62% poverty rate (in 2012) and applied their pass rate for economically-disadvantaged students to that projected number, Bristol would out-perform them on the overall pass rate by four points.

To further clarify, Bristol City out-performed Loudoun County for mathematics in 2012 for both economically disadvantaged students and students who were not disadvantaged. See table below. However, only 17% of Loudoun County’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, and 51% of that population passed their mathematics tests.   This means that they can fall back on the 83% of their students who are not economically disadvantaged and who passed their end of course math tests at a rate of 80%.  Conversely in Bristol, the majority of our students are economically disadvantaged; and while we outpaced Loudoun County for students fitting both economic descriptions, our 81% pass rate for the 36% of our students who are not economically disadvantaged is not enough to offset our 51% pass rate for the 64% of our students who are.

Pass rate economically disadvantaged

Pass rate for students not disadvantaged







Affluent Loudoun County and other demographically similar divisions see their test scores explode upward because they have more students who are not economically disadvantaged.  This subgroup will always outperform students in poverty and propel their pass rates upwards. Whereas, having a high number of students that are disadvantaged serves as an anchor in preventing an upward surge for test scores. Thus, the Bristol City and Loudoun County examples is extremely telling because Loudoun’s mathematics pass rates soared to 75 percent last year, while Bristol’s overall pass rate grew at a much lesser extent to 63 percent. Again, it must be emphasized that that when you separate economically disadvantaged and those not economically disadvantaged, Bristol out-performs Loudoun County in both categories! These numbers clearly demonstrate that school divisions that enroll high percentages of economically disadvantaged students are punished despite successfully closing the achievement gap.

The English Reading examination scores shown in Table 1 clearly demonstrate that on a three-year average, Albemarle, Fauquier, Henrico, and Loudoun Counties and Falls Church City school divisions  all were either at the state average or above the 19 percent failure rate for economically disadvantaged students.  This number also demonstrates that school divisions that enroll high percentages of economically disadvantaged students have very little room to improve their overall achievement scores. Conversely, most schools and school divisions that serve great majorities of affluent students will likely never be in jeopardy of state sanctions because their demographics alone help them maintain established pass rates.

As expected, overall student achievement examination rates in more affluent school divisions are much higher than their pass rates for economically disadvantaged students; therefore, their affluent majority students help mask existing achievement gaps that will be exacerbated under the Governor’s proposed A-F model. For example, Roanoke City has a pass rate of 82% for all students in English Reading, whereas Albemarle County, a more affluent school division, jumps to 91%. This is a clear example of how schools will be punished for serving high percentages of economically disadvantaged students. The examination scores reported for Albemarle County would be considerably different if it served the 71% poverty rate reported for Roanoke City. In fact, if both Albemarle County and Roanoke City had the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students, Roanoke City would achieve higher scores.

The purpose of this commentary is not to shame more affluent school divisions for failing to close achievement gaps; instead, it is to suggest that Governor McDonnell’s A-F scale accounts only for overall achievement examination scores and creates a nearly insurmountable obstacle for school divisions that serve high percentages of economically-disadvantaged students. Educating students in poverty is one of the nation’s greatest challenges; and this challenge increases with every percent point increase in free and reduced price lunches. Yet, in affluent school divisions where it should be easier to differentiate instruction specifically for fewer numbers of poor children, most achieve no better or even worse for economically-disadvantaged children than high poverty school divisions. Yet the more affluent school divisions will consistently receive A’s and B’s on the new rating scale.

The data displayed in Tables 1 and 2, are found on each school division’s state report card and clearly demonstrate that overall achievement disparities among school divisions are almost solely based on the percent of economically-disadvantaged students served by the school division. It is discouraging that our elected officials, including our Governor supported legislation that so glaringly fails to recognize the inherent challenges faced by high poverty schools. To be more succinct, Governor McDonnell’s signature education legislation will punish high poverty schools and divisions even where significant gains toward increasing achievement for economically-disadvantaged students have been attained. More discouraging, assigning a low grade to a high poverty school division will decrease  its ability to attract and retain top teaching candidates who could have a significantly positive impact on the students, school, and the entire school community.

The educators in high poverty schools are equally competent and are not bashful to ask for assistance. What our high poverty school divisions need is additional assistance and support, not punishment in the form of awarding a simplistic singular grade and the threat of school takeover. We need more preschool programs, lower pupil-teacher ratios, mathematics specialists, financial support for physical education and wellness programs, and we need the ability to extend learning opportunities during summers, holiday vacations, and after school hours. The scores in this document clearly demonstrate that the achievement gap between high poverty school divisions and those that are more affluent is not always as great as it appears. In fact, data gleaned from the Virginia DOE school report cards prove that many high-poverty divisions are tightening achievement gaps with greater success than their more affluent neighbors.

The data from Tables 1 and 2 demonstrate that many schools in poverty, including several that stand to receive a grade of C, D or F, are more adept and successful in closing achievement gaps for students in poverty.  This behooves the question, “Are these schools really failing?”  I hold a contrary view — they are in fact doing more in the face of even greater challenges to help their students succeed.  Labeling such schools with failing grades will only hurt their chances of achieving further successes for their high populations of economically-disadvantaged students.

In conclusion, the grading scale needs to be either repealed or adjusted to prevent schools from being punished just because they have a large percentage of students that are economically-disadvantaged. In essence, labeling a school with a C or below marks them as inadequate and delivers a false perception to the community and to anyone considering relocating and enrolling their children in such school divisions.  Moreover, Governor McDonnell and the majority of our state senators and delegates have praised this measure for its simplicity. They have indicated that parents should be able to better understand one grade instead of a multi-page school evaluation document.  While this may be true, a single grade based solely on overall student achievement will inevitably favor affluent school divisions and denigrate those with high poverty rates. This applies even when poorer divisions are out-performing wealthy school divisions in the low socio-economic subgroup, and thus are doing a better job of closing achievement gaps.

If our affluent schools are really failing to close achievement gaps, then the outrage needs be felt equally across the Commonwealth; not just in Petersburg, Danville, Bristol, Roanoke Cities, but also in Albemarle, Loudoun counties, and Falls Church City.  After the numbers demonstrated in this document are examined, imagine the teeth-gnashing that would occur if the affluent school divisions’ performance were measured with fifty percent or more of the score was a function of their numbers of economically-disadvantaged students. School divisions with high poverty rates have to scrap and claw for every percent point increase because any gain comes through their economically-disadvantaged students.  Affluent school divisions, some that have single-digit poverty rates, can rely on students from middle and upper classes to increase or at least maintain their passing scores.  Our lawmakers should know this and recognize that a one-grade evaluation system is wholly unfair to school divisions that serve high numbers of economically-disadvantaged students and unrepresentative of the gains they have actually made in closing achievement gaps.  Assuming that they do know this, we have to ask, “What is the motivation behind this legislation?”  These questions are especially pertinent when data show that presumed failing schools such as Petersburg and Richmond cities are actually out-performing some school divisions in some of the most affluent regions in the entire world.  And if that is indeed the case, why is our Governor so intent on giving those schools a failing grade? Why indeed?