School Division Weaves Growth Adjustments into SOL Pass Rates

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Albemarle county reading SOL pass rates by demographic group for 2019-22 assessments. Data courtesy Virginia Department of Education; charts compiled by Lisa Martin.

The Virginia Department of Education released the results of the state’s spring 2022 standardized testing for K-12 students in August, which showed gains in most subjects over 2021 assessments but not a rebound to pre-pandemic levels. State math test pass rates, for example, languished at 66%, down 16 points from an 82% pass rate in 2019. (SOL’s were canceled entirely for the 2019-20 year.)

Albemarle County student pass rates in 2022 were almost identical to those of 2021, with 75% of county students passing reading tests (down one point from last year) and 66% passing math tests (up one point) after a full school year of in-person learning. In its public response to the results, the school division acknowledged that it is now using an adjusted measure of SOL pass rates, which incorporates a growth factor to determine whether or not a student is considered to have “passed.” 

Albemarle county math SOL pass rates by demographic group for 2019-22 assessments

County school officials did not issue a press release about the 2022 results, but provided a statement to The Crozet Gazette upon request.

“The good news is that our overall [pass rates] in English and Math again exceeded the statewide averages,” said ACPS spokesman Phil Giaramita. “The reading skill results, especially in the developmentally significant elementary grades, were strong. This not only reflects the work of our teachers as we returned to school in the past year but the support of parents, who were so important to the reading progress of their children during school closures.”

SOL pass rates are one of several key metrics used to determine whether Virginia schools receive state accreditation and are the most visible measure of whether school divisions are narrowing their “achievement gap”—the disparity in educational performance among subgroups of students, especially groups defined by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and gender. ACPS’s mission statement vows to “end the predictive value” of subgroup performance in academic success.

Addressing achievement gaps, the school division noted, “[w]e also saw some encouraging numbers in our at-risk demographic groups, which exceeded state averages and suggest, together with our on-time graduation rates, that our culturally responsive teaching model is having a positive impact.” 

Western Albemarle High School’s SOL pass rates for 2019-22 assessments

However, contrary to the division’s assertion, pass rate data provided by the Department of Education (DOE) showed the performance of at-risk demographic groups in Albemarle to be starkly lower than state averages, and the achievement gaps between those groups and their non-at-risk counterparts to be much wider than before the pandemic.

For example, according to DOE data, Albemarle county’s math assessment pass rate was 38% for Black students and 45% for Hispanic students, while statewide levels were 49% and 53%. In reading, Black students passed at a 50% rate and Hispanic students at a 51% rate, compared to 59% for both groups statewide. 

With respect to achievement gaps in Albemarle county, the difference between Black and white students’ math pass rates was 29 points in 2019 and ballooned to 39 points this year, compared to a 27-point gap statewide. The reading assessment gap between Black and white students in Albemarle was 35 points this year, compared to 22 points statewide.

A comparison of Henley Middle School’s math and reading SOL pass rates to county averages for 2019-22 assessments

The school division spokesman told The Gazette that Black and Hispanic students passed their math assessments at rates of 66% and 78%, respectively, “exceeding state averages.” Yet the DOE data showed pass rates of 38% and 45% for these groups in Albemarle. When pressed as to why the division’s reported rates did not square with DOE score data, Giaramita said that the difference in the numbers reflects the difference in what the division values.

“The state numbers are raw values, simply how many students passed and how many failed,” said Giaramita. “Our numbers take into account growth, on the basis that the raw numbers are one data point in time and don’t provide a holistic view of each student.” He explained that the school division adjusted this year’s pass rates to incorporate a measure of student growth based on how students did on a baseline test last fall. If a student failed a SOL but showed some amount of improvement in performance over time (while still failing the test), that student was counted as having passed the test in the county’s tally—hence the 30-point difference in reported pass rates.

“It comes down to philosophy,” said Giaramita. “We certainly want every student to pass every test and that remains our ultimate goal. We believe, however, that if a student failed by 40 points [on an earlier test] and improved to where their failure was by 10 points, this demonstrates learning growth and should be represented in any assessments of academic progress. It’s still a failure, of course, but if the growth continues, that student will pass.”

Philosophy aside, the school division did not transparently disclose its use of adjusted pass rates in its initial public comments, leaving no way for parents and community members to make informed assessments of schools’ performance compared to other divisions or the state as a whole. There was no apparent attempt to present raw “pass rates” separately from “growth-adjusted rates” to the public for clarity, and ACPS’s assertion that county pass rates for certain subgroups “exceeded state averages” could not be verified because state data is not similarly adjusted.

A “growth-adjusted pass” approach was instituted in 2017 at the state level to evaluate whether schools receive state accreditation, but a report from the DOE earlier this year decried the method as “watering down” the standards. The report noted that, using growth adjustments, students could fail a SOL for three years in a row while still being counted as passing, thus supporting school accreditation while not meeting state proficiency standards.

“The point we’d really like to make about SOL scores is that while the pass rates are not uniformly where they should be, we are encouraged by growth numbers that show students, especially those who have struggled to pass SOL tests, are improving,” said Giaramita.

A comparison of Brownsville and Crozet Elementary Schools’ math SOL pass rates to county and state averages for 2019-22 assessments
A comparison of Brownsville and Crozet Elementary Schools’ reading SOL pass rates to county and state averages for 2019-22 assessments

Western district schools’ pass rates were a mixed bag as compared to 2021, and have not fully returned to pre-pandemic levels. Brownsville Elementary students passed both reading and math SOLs at higher rates than the county and state averages from 2019-22, though the reading pass rate declined a bit in 2022. Crozet Elementary lagged behind the county average in reading over the three-year span but improved in 2022 and has tracked with county averages in math from 2019-22.

Henley Middle School students, while achieving pass rates above state and county averages in 2019-21, saw its rates dip by six points in both reading and math on its 2022 assessments. WAHS reading assessment scores returned to their historical high levels in 2022, while writing pass rates declined sharply and history and science scores remained near their pandemic level lows. 

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