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State legislation has local educators concerned

Posted on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 10:02 am



School leaders in the region were critical of recent state legislation that approved a new mandatory accountability process for Virginia schools.

On July 1, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed into law House Bill 1999/Senate Bill 1207, or “A-F School Report Cards.”

The law, sponsored by Del. Tag Greason (R-32nd) and Sen. Bill Stanley (R-20th), intends to create a pathway for the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to use in reporting individual school performance by using an A-F grading system in addition to current standards of accreditation.

An “A” grade would imply that a school has met and exceeded all requirements for accreditation whereas an “F” would result in the school not being accredited.

But Dr. Greg Smith, Superintendent of Richmond County Public Schools, noted that the exact criteria for how the evaluation system will work remain unclear.

“The rankings themselves have not been moved forward yet,” Smith pointed out.

The legislation requires the Virginia Board of Education to approve student growth indicators for use in the accreditation of schools and the evaluation of teachers by July 31, and also mandates that the board begin to report individual school performance using the A-to-F grading system by Oct. 1, 2014.

The A-to-F scale will further consider criteria that are currently measured in schools but are not part of No Child Left Behind or the Standards of Learning accreditation process.

Accreditation standards, state and federal accountability requirements and student growth indicators will be considered by the new grading system in ranking individual schools.

The legislation poses an accumulative snapshot at a school system’s growth in regards to graduation criteria as well as the number of students receiving an advanced studies diploma versus a standard diploma.

The new grading system will also focus on postgraduate student performance and the performance of specified student subgroups in terms of graduation and retention rates.

In a July 1 press release, McDonnell called the new grading system a “catalyst” for parents and community leaders to become more involved in the success of their local schools.

“A-F school grading will allow parents to clearly understand how their local school is actually performing,” said McDonnell.

But the Virginia School Board Association, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and select superintendents from the Northern Neck and Essex County did not share McDonnell’s platform on the A-F grading criteria.

In an April 4 press release, VSBA Federal Relations Chairman Juandiego R. Wade, of Charlottesville was quoted as saying: “A single grade does not provide parents and partners with adequate and transparent information that they need. Labeling a school with a single grade will mask the successes and challenges that stakeholders need to be aware of to foster continual improvement.”

Smith said the VASS felt that the new law was very redundant in relation to the current accreditation and evaluation programs.

“We have not been pleased with this new evaluation system,” said Smith. “We feel that the current one is certainly more than adequate.”

Smith, however, did not foresee any difficulties in adopting the new process.

“It is Virginia State Law, we have to adhere to it and we will proceed accordingly,” he said. “I feel certain that Richmond County Schools will fare very, very well but it’s another process and another checklist that the public schools will have to go through in addition to the current state and federal guidelines.”

Westmoreland County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Rebecca Lowry said she was concerned about the addition of “yet another rating system” since Virginia schools and school divisions already receive state-mandated school report cards that supply subject and grade-level ratings for student achievement.

Lowry also noted that a school’s state accreditation rating is based on overall achievement in English, Science, Mathematics, Social Studies and the minimum graduation rate for high schools.

From the statewide accreditation system, schools currently derive ratings of fully accredited, professionally accredited, accredited with warning, accreditation denied and conditionally accredited.

“I believe the addition of another rating will add no value and perhaps confusion will result,” said Lowry. “For example, a school could earn a “fully accredited status, but have a ‘B’ rating.”

Dr. Rebecca Gates, Superintendent of Northumberland County Public Schools, agreed with the position of the VASS regarding the A-F grading system.

“The school report card contains more valuable info than the grading system and is available for the public of the VDOE website,” said Gates. “Assigning one letter grade for a school system doesn’t represent the full picture.”

Essex County Public Schools (ECPS) Superintendent Dr. Scott Burckbuchler noted he was confused as to how the A-F evaluation process was better than the current system.

“I have questions about how the system would be able to improve the school systems,” said Burckbuchler.

He did, however, say that the new legislation had been approved, “it is what it is” and that ECPS would respond appropriately based on how the evaluation system works.

Lancaster County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Daniel Lukich said the legislation was a “very misguided effort” by the state to improve Virginia’s public education system, which he called one of the best public education systems in the country.

In related news, McDonnell signed The Teach for America Act, or House Bill 2084/Senate Bill 1207.

Teach for America (TFA) is a program that recruits and trains recent college graduates from across the county to accept full-time teaching assignments in hard-to-staff schools with the intent of closing the achievement gap between students.

The act will allow the TFA program to operate in Virginia and place teachers in hard-to-staff schools beginning with the 2013-2014 school year.

In a July 1 press release, Eva Colen, Teach for America’s Virginia Community Engagement Director, said: “As a native Virginian having led recruitment efforts for Teach For America in the Commonwealth for the last three years, I’m thrilled and honored to begin conversations with community leaders, school divisions, and philanthropists across the state to explore the possibility of joining ongoing efforts to help ensure that all students in our state have access to an excellent education.

Lowry noted that TFA has been successful in urban locations and expressed her joy over Virginia School Divisions gaining access to the program.

“Knowing that TFA recruits teachers with demonstrated leadership ability and excellent critical thinking skills, we will consider recruitment of teachers from TFA,” said Lowry. “We are particularly interested in teachers who are licensed in Mathematics and Science and who will consider a long-term commitment to our county.”

Burckbuchler said that ECPS would be open for all qualified candidates, particularly in hard-to-fill areas such as Mathematics and Special Education-related positions.