Last week, Fairfax County schools announced the annual state accreditation ratings, and only two local elementary schools, McNair in Herndon and Dogwood in Reston, failed to receive the state's top distinction.
Of the 176 general education schools in Fairfax County, only nine schools, including Dogwood Elementary, fell, for the third straight year, into the "provisionally accredited — needs improvement" category. Whereas, 145, or 82.4 percent of Fairfax elementary schools, including all but one in Reston and Herndon, were given the highest rating — "fully accredited" — by the state.
The ratings are based on student achievement on the Standards of Learning, or SOL, tests given to students in the third, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh grades. The SOL tests measure student knowledge in four curricula: English, mathematics, history and science.
Schools are fully accredited if its students' SOL pass rates are at or above 70 percent in all four content areas.
Schools, like McNair, who are provisionally accredited, meets state standards, meet or exceed state standards in all four areas, but rate less than 70 percent in one or more categories. McNair scored a 67 in history and a 66 in math.
Those schools that, according to state guidelines, need improvement, like Dogwood, if one or more categories fall below the state's stated benchmarks. Dogwood failed by one point to meet suggested state levels in science. With a score of 73, math was Dogwood's highest score, and the only one which broke the 70 percent threshold.
"I think that we have spent the last two years really trying to get back to normal," said Dogwood principal Ricki Harvey, referring to the fire that gutted her school in November 2000. "A lot of people forget that, but we couldn't offer after-school remediation classes and we had kids that were on buses. That's not meant to be an excuse, but a lot of people don't know what it was like and what we went through to get here today. I think that played a big factor."
While Dogwood was being completely rebuilt, McNair, the area's newest elementary school, now in its second full year, was just getting started. The scores that were announced last week are the Thomas Jefferson Drive school's first official Virginia accreditation ratings. "We spent last year just getting know each other," said Susan Benezra, the McNair principal.
McNair received its "provisionally accredited — meets state standards" ranking because its scores in history and math, while above the state minimum, did not pass the 70 percent number.
McNair's second-year principal said she was extremely happy with her school's first official numbers, despite not being fully accredited. "I am very pleased with the growth I have seen in such a short time," Benezra said. "Considering we didn't have any previous history on our children, except for their report card data, I think we did very well."
While pleased with her initial ratings, Benezra acknowledged that the numbers reveal some "growth room." The principal said she, and her staff, are analyzing the data and looking for ways, through staff development and new teaching strategies, to adapt their instruction to their students. "Make no mistake, we are on the right track and we will reach those benchmarks."
<b>WITH DOGWOOD STUDENTS</b> and teachers back in their re-built Glade Drive school, Harvey, said she can see what a difference familiar surroundings can have on everyday. "We are finding right now in the last 12 weeks, we have really been able to focus our energies on looking at actual test items," she said. "We are also looking at the data on our kids and then really looking to see if there are some things we can do."
Both principals are confident that they will join all of their neighboring schools in the upper echelon of Virginia state schools. Both principals said they understand parents worries about test scores, but both said their fears are unfounded.
"Are we really optimistic that we will have good scores? Absolutely. The teachers and I know it is going to happen. We are hoping it is a year away," Harvey said. "They say change takes three to five years and we've kind of lost two years due to the fire. The good news is we've made progress every year. We are like the turtle, we are going slowly but we are going to win in the end. Its a slow process but were getting there. We've spent two years on survival stuff, now it's time for learning and instruction."
With her first year behind her, Benezra, like her colleague in Reston, is also confident that her school will improve its SOL scores by next year. "The faculty needed to mesh and get our new house in order," she said. "So far, the second year has been much calmer and that is good for the students and the teachers."
<b>NEITHER PRINCIPAL DENIES</b> the importance of the SOLs, but both educators said it is important not to place too much emphasis on the tests.
"We give our students progress reports and it is fair to expect periodic reports on our progress," Benezra said. "Everyone needs to know how the schools are performing, as long as everyone is taking the same test."
Harvey said the tests are high stakes. "Are accountability and high standards important? Yes," Harvey said "Are the SOLs the best way to measure that? I don't think so. I think there are other states that have developed far better assessment tools, but it's a reality and we need to deal with it."
Beginning in 2007, the state will begin to officially accredit schools throughout the state. The ratings, like those released last week, are provisional and are only used to assess where a school stands in regards to new state standards. "The provisional grades can set expectations pretty high," said Ray Diroll, in the office of student testing for Fairfax County. "Fairly or not, those schools that don't get fully accredited are viewed differently than those that are. Yet, they are still working hard towards the goal and that the goal, 70 percent by 2007, is still a long way off."
Teachers take the scores very seriously, the Dogwood principal said. On Monday, Harvey told her staff that everyone needs to better understand the SOLs if significant improvement is to be made. Harvey said she told her staff that they need to know what's on the test and they need to teach what's on the test. "That's in addition to everything else we need to teach," Harvey said. "That's the struggle, there are other really important things and we want kids to think and problem solve and on the test they want it memorized and given back to you. We are committed to doing both.
"When you are the only one that has been accredited provisionally, its so hard. Its really hard," Harvey said. "It's hard because the teachers get so discouraged. They work so hard and they care so much. They are so committed to these kids. They internalize it."
<b>ONE THING BOTH</b> schools have in common, according to their leaders, is a very diverse and fluid population. For McNair, a growing school with over 1,000 students is very diverse and mobile, much of its student population draws from newly built apartments and subdivisions south of the toll road in Herndon. Many of Dogwood's students live in apartments along Glade Drive in Reston.
Families living in apartments tend to move in and out much more frequently than single-family home owners. "We also have a very highly mobile population. Those schools that draw from apartment complexes are tough. If you look at the third grade SOL tests, on that test there are science and social studies objectives that are covered in first, second grade and third grades," Harvey said. "We've added 100 kids since August. Is this a result of teachings or do we have some challenges because students move in and out so much? You don't have the same luxury that other schools do that have the same kids to teach in Kindergarten through third grade."
Students moving into Dogwood and McNair are representative of the increased Hispanic population in and around Fairfax County. Three years ago, according to Harvey, Dogwood had 44 English as a second language students. Today the school has 250.
<b>HARVEY AND BENEZRA</b> believe their respective schools test scores are largely a result of changing demographics. "We've taken 100 English as a second language students back that were at Sunrise Valley," Harvey said.
Benezra agreed. Two-thirds of McNair's student body, according to its principal, is made up of children whose first language is not English. What we really have to do is target and help those students who come to us not having a really solid background.
"You can teach students on a day-to-day basis how to read and write and how to do the math and how to do the language, but how to take that on a test for children who have limited English speaking is very difficult. It's just hard," Harvey said. The terminology and the vocabulary on the test is very difficult for kids for whom English is not their first language. We've got kids who come here and walk into our school in the fifth grade and don't speak any English. They are wonderful kids and smart kids and they are kids who will learn over time, but they are just not going to do well on an SOL test in six months. But we will."