“Test scores do not define our schools. They never have and never will,” said Mount Vernon school board member Dan Storck.
Earlier this month the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released accreditation results based on student performance in the 2013-2014 school year. The ratio of Fairfax County Public schools receiving full accreditation to those not making the grade dropped from 94 percent a year ago to 89 percent.
Schools have three ways to meet “Annual Measurable Objectives” (AMOs) based on Standards of Learning (SOL) testing in English, Math, History and Science. The VDOE sets benchmark point values that can be met using the most recent year’s scores, a three-year average or reducing failure rate by ten percent from the previous year. If a school doesn’t meet the requisite number of objectives (75 percent of students passing reading and writing, 70 percent for math, science and history, and a graduation standard for high schools) it gets a warning.
Schools then have three years to improve from the warning status before VDOE steps in to help. In Mount Vernon, West Potomac and Mount Vernon high schools, as well as numerous elementary schools, all got the warning status. In Springfield’s Lee district, Forestdale and Lynbrook elementary schools received warnings as well.
EDUCATORS AND ADMINISTRATORS in both districts are quick to point out that while the scorecards are a serious issue, they don’t tell the full story.
“It’s really a snapshot,” said Lee school board member Tamara Derenak Kaufax, “and doesn’t always reflect the progress of individuals in the classroom.”
“I don’t make any excuses, we don’t as a school,” Lynbrook principal Mary McNamee said. “Although these tests are very important, we know what’s best practice. We’re not teaching to the test, we’re teaching to the students’ learning needs.”
Individual schools and the VDOE have continued to make changes to improve the effectiveness of testing and, ultimately teaching and learning. But that process has had growing pains and mismatches.
More than a half a decade ago, the state made SOLs more difficult. There was an adjustment period but within two to three years, all Fairfax County schools were fully compliant, according to Storck.
“We’ve been so successful historically at doing just that,” he said, “our track record would show we’ll make that happen.”
For the 2011-2012 school year, the math tests became more difficult again. Questions required more critical reading and comprehension. Nardos King, principal at Mount Vernon High School, said their math scores dropped from 85 to 53 percent after taking the new test that year.
“We had to build those skills back up,” she said, “and pay attention to the new standards. Math dropped across the county, across the state. But ours were a little bit more significant.”
King took immediate action, bringing in an instructional math coach for Mount Vernon’s teachers, as well as getting teachers to work in collaborative learning teams where they would share their lesson plans across subjects to help students see the crossover utility in their classes.
In one year, Mount Vernon’s students improved 11 percent in math. That was still below the 2012-2013 standard so the warning wasn’t lifted. However King is optimistic: “Our team is strong and working really hard to continue the trend of improvement.”
A MAJOR CHALLENGE facing the Mount Vernon and Lee schools with warnings is the disproportionate percentage of their students receiving free or reduced meals and coming to school with English as a second language (ESOL).
Across Fairfax County, Storck said, 27-28 percent of the schools’ populations are economically disadvantaged. West Potomac High School is at 40 percent. Mount Vernon is 53 percent. Kaufax said Forestdale nearly matches those numbers, while the poverty rate at Lynbrook is about 90 percent and the ESOL is 74 percent.
“Sadly it’s a function of education of the child coming in,” said Storck, “what they have to start with. Many of these kids just don’t have much in the way of education.”
“They come with limited literacy in their own language,” said Kaufax. “No pre-kindergarten experience. Some speak no English.”
These students, though not without potential, require more time and resources.
“My educators tell me it takes three to five years coming to the system at that level to get up to speed at optimal levels,” Kaufax said. Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman John Torre said “This year, the added cost per ESOL student is $3,454.”
The accreditation warnings are a major motivating factor for schools to redouble their efforts, but most have already been implementing innovative programs to raise performance. The school board and the Mount Vernon and Lee schools have already been developing and implementing ideas to improve and evaluate performance.
For Storck, a big part of that is getting away from “mastery-level standardized testing.” He said the board’s unanimous objective is “to really broaden how we assess kids, so it’s not a bubble test, but truly the kind of test they’re going to get in life.”
THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS have put a major focus on early learning, trying to set the students up for future success. “We’ve opened nine pre-k classrooms,” said Kaufax. “Lynbrook now has three headstart classrooms.”
In a statement Torre said Saratoga Elementary, as well as Lynbrook and Forestdale students, “have benefited from the implementation of early education programs such as Head Start/FECEP, Bridge to K (a summer program for students entering kindergarten that prepares them for school) and summer jump start programs for students in grades K-6 that operate in tandem with our FCPS Summer Extended Learning Time (SELT).”
Principals, school board and PTSA members also recognize the need to involve families and communities surrounding schools to help students be successful.
In addition to supporting West Potomac’s efforts with funding a second day running a late bus, PTSA president Karen Corbett Sanders said they’re trying to think of new ways to work with local businesses and the large retiree population around the school.
“We should be getting stronger business partnerships with the schools,” she said. “They could provide mentorship opportunities as well as financial support.”
At Lynbook, McNamee bolsters after school tutoring and mentoring with parent ESOL education and a program called Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool and Youth (HIPPY). “It shows our children their families are focused on learning,” she said.
“We’re really dedicated to the success of each and every one of our students,” said Kaufax. “Our efforts are immense, and these schools are doing amazing things.”