The news couldn't have been better for Arlington Public Schools. Preliminary reports indicated that the Virginia Department of Education was on the verge of releasing standardized test data that would show all 31 public schools in Arlington would be fully accredited.
Then the bottom fell out.
Before state officials released the official report, Arlington leaders received a call informing them that they could retract the press release. One of the county's schools would not, in fact, be fully accredited. Arlington Mill High School, a first-year startup operation for nontraditional students, would receive the designation "accredited with warning" because of its graduation rate.
"We kind of argued with the state over being accredited with warning," said Connie Skelton, assistant superintendent for instruction. "This is their baseline year, so this is the first year we have ever collected data on them."
STATE ACCREDIDATION ratings have long been a kind of gold standard for schools in Virginia. Some divisions have even created large banners to fly at schools proudly announcing the status. Arlington Public School leaders were ready to boast that each and every one of its schools was fully accredited, a feat that the county has never achieved and one that is almost unheard of for a division with 23,000 students.
“I’m very proud that our schools have met this benchmark of student success," said Superintendent Pat Murphy. "Accreditation is one of the multiple ways we look at progress throughout APS.”
The ratings reflect performance on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests, which are administered ever year. Students are expected to meet minimum standards in English, math, history and science. To be fully accredited, a school must have 75 percent of its students pass the English test and 70 percent. Although Arlington Mill did not meet the threshold for math, the Virginia Board of Education has approved an alternative accreditation plan that allows the school to add all the categories together and achieve a 75 percent pass rate, a goal students exceeded by three points. The problem was with the school's graduation rate, which did not meet state standards.
"They are trying to meet life's challenge at same time they are trying to get an education," said Barbara Thompson, principal of Arlington Mill High School. "I am confident we will meet accreditation standards next year."
THE HISTORY of Arlington Mill High School dates back to 1929, when the county launched a night school for students who could not attend school during the day. By the 1970s, school leaders had transformed it into a high school continuation program for students who had left school and wanted to return. Over the years, it's been located in community centers thought the county, most recently at Arlington Mill Community Center. When that building was demolished, it moved to rented office space in Ballston.
Last year, the school transformed from a continuation program into a full-fledged high school, now located at the Career Center near the Columbia Pike Library. Students who are over the age of 18 are not counted in the graduation rate calculation, and students who speak English as a second language or have a disability can "slide" from one year to two years in terms of calculating the years it takes to graduate. Schools can also get bonus points for improving from one year to the next.
"Seven of the eight categories for bonus points involve improving performance over the previous year, but we did not have previous scores to improve upon," said Thompson. "The only thing we gained points for was that we maintained a dropout rate of below 30 percent."