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Is Economics or Language to Blame?

Looking for a Stumbling Block: Language, race, poverty concentrate SOL problems in South Arlington schools.

With the release last week of Arlington’s Standards of Learning test results, county schools reported that 24 of 30 schools have achieved accreditation according to state standards.

Adjusted SOL pass rates, which are the statistics used by the Virginia Board of Education to assess the effectiveness of public schools, show an overall increase in Arlington County.

The remaining six schools which have not met state standards – Abingdon, Carlin Springs and Randolph elementaries, Gunston and Kenmore middle schools and Wakefield high school - should all achieve full accreditation over the next two years, school Superintendent Robert Smith said.

All six meet the state’s "provisionally accredited" standards, the second highest ranking, meaning that student scores have improved in English, science, math and history. But they also share some troubling similarities of geography and minority populations.

The schools that have yet to gain full accreditation all lie in South Arlington. They all have student bodies composed of at least 44 percent Latino students, according to statistics provided by the county. And almost all educate more than twice the county average of students listed as "at-risk" – those receiving free and reduced-price lunches under state and federal programs.

It’s a cause for concern, parents say. "Hispanics and other people of color — it seems clear that they are concentrated in failing schools," said Fred Millar, a member of two Arlington minority parents groups.

<b>A SIMPLE EXPLANATION</b> of this trend would be that many of Arlington’s Latino students are second-language learners, new English speakers who traditionally have difficulty performing on standardized tests administered in English.

But according to state regulations, if a second-language learner has been enrolled in Virginia public schools fewer than 11 semesters (just over five school years), his or her SOL scores are removed from the school’s averages.

According to Kathleen Wills, many of Arlington’s Latino students fall into this category, particularly at the elementary school level. Wills, the Director of Planning and Evaluation for county schools, is currently working with her staff to break down SOL scores.

They will be looking at scores based on gender, ethnicity, students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities and students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, with a report on the results coming to the School Board later this month.

Wills noted that schools in South Arlington, which typically draw students from areas of higher poverty and ethnic diversity, historically have a "more challenging" educational situation.

For the three elementaries and, to some degree, the two middle schools, the number of students considered in the adjusted scores is consistent with most Latino students’ scores being excluded.

But the student population at those schools is largely Latino, and their SOL scores are not considered for full accreditation, the perspective changes. In addition, five of the six elementaries that gained full accreditation this year also have a large Latino population. For example, Barrett Elementary, which achieved accreditation, has a racial makeup roughly comparable to Randolph.

If these underachieving schools cannot attribute their performance problems to the language barrier, what else can be at the root of them?

<b>POVERTY IS</b> one issue.

At the schools yet to gain full accreditation, an average of 60.7 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to school system statistics.

Schools that gained accreditation before the 2001-02 school year only had an average of 23.35 percent of their student population receiving free or reduced price lunch.

"We know that family income is a big factor in most standardized test scores, including the SOLs," said David Foster, a School Board member. "We also know that students who have or begin with limited English proficiency may have a tougher time with standardized tests given in English. So yes, those schools [with those characteristics] are likely to have bigger challenges."

Elaine Furlow, School Board Chair, also noted the historic link between family income and student achievement.

"Our hope in Arlington is that we will come to a place where income does not necessarily indicate success in school," she said. "We’re working hard to remedy that."

She pointed to a preschool program for 4-year-olds who qualify for free or reduced lunch as one initiative showing "a tremendous payoff" for helping economically disadvantaged students succeed.

Further steps need to be taken, Foster said, including reducing class sizes at those elementary schools, supporting homework clubs and increasing parental involvement. "It's going to take a lot of effort," he said.

<b>THE REAL STORY,</b> school board members say, is improved scores in spite of disadvantages. The trend in SOL results shows an increase in scores over the last five years, and that shows that Arlington is moving in the right direction.

SOL pass rates have improved in most subjects at most schools during the tests’ five-year existence, and those positive trends are a key to countywide success, said School Board member Mary Hynes. But in addition to the trend of improvement within individual schools, the school boundary maps may show a countywide trend of improvement.

Schools in North Arlington have performed well traditionally, and they have been fully accredited for several years. The nine schools that gained full accreditation this year form a rough border between those schools and the six provisionally accredited schools, and show a rough wave of accreditation moving from North to South.

But Millar says the increase in accredited schools is little cause for excitement. "Accreditation is only a measure of partial success," he said, since a school can become accredited even if 30 percent of students still fail the SOLs.

"We as minority parents cannot afford not to know what is going on with our children," he said. "I want to know the color of every student in every low [achieving] group in the county."

THERE’S A DIFFERENCE, TOO, between Latino students and "second-language learners," Furlow said. Not all Latino students are removed from consideration, she said, since not all of them are new English speakers – some have been here for generations.

That means that while adjusted SOL numbers may correlate with numbers of Latino students, there is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship.

So, with potentially large numbers of Latino students being removed from consideration for school accreditation, the question arises as to whether the adjusted pass rates provide any useful information about the Arlington schools’ initiative to close the achievement gap.

Discussion about the achievement gap for minority students treats it like a minor glitch in the system, "a pesky gnat," Millar said. "This isn't a gnat...this is an elephant in the living room."

"I think it would be a mistake not to look at the unadjusted scores," said Furlow. Foster agreed that when it comes to the achievement gap, adjusted SOL pass rates do not tell the whole story. "We can’t fail to educate a student properly just because his or her SOL scores do not count against the school," he said.

Those scores are still important, said Hynes. "We really do look at all those kids’ scores. Even if they don’t count for accreditation in the third grade… they’ll count later," she said.

Under state standards, by 2007, students must pass SOLs to move into middle and high school, and to graduate.

Hynes also suggested that transience of a student body may be more important than ethnic diversity when it comes to analyzing SOL difficulties, and may prove misleading when examining Arlington’s efforts to close the achievement gap.

South Arlington, she said, has the highest transient population in the county, and the most rental units. Students moving into the county "haven’t had the full benefit of the Arlington curriculum."