In September, the Virginia Department of Education released the results from the May 2023 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests—standardized exams given throughout the Commonwealth annually to measure whether students are achieving grade-level proficiency in core subjects. Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) announced that the division’s scores showed small improvements in writing, math, history, and science, but noted that pass rates in reading dropped by a point to 74% and were only one point above the state average. Math pass rates in Albemarle were equal to the state average, at 69%.
“While some pass rates were modestly higher this year, there’s no question that, overall, these scores are far off the mark when it comes to ensuring that all of our students are learning at their highest level,” said Dr. Chandra Hayes, assistant superintendent for instruction, in a press release.
Although Hayes noted that third grade is a time when reading comprehension becomes essential to understanding and mastering content in all subject areas, only 31% of Black third graders in Albemarle schools are reading at grade level, an eight-point decline from last year’s results.
Pat McLaughlin, assistant superintendent for strategic planning, presented this year’s data to the School Board on September 14. McLaughlin showed bar charts for all students in each of the five major test areas—reading, writing, math, science, and history, with subgroups broken out for student demographics—Asian, Black, Hispanic, Multiple Races, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and English learners. “Over all subgroups, we saw division-wide improvement in 30 categories, flat in two, and a decline in eight,” he said. (An error in the presented data, if corrected, would bring the actual tally to 29-2-9.)
“One thing that I think is important is where we are in comparison with state results,” said McLaughlin, “and we continued to be below the state averages in most results that we are sharing.” Indeed, ACPS pass rates were at or below state average rates in 32 of the 40 categories.
Board member Katrina Callsen asked a question about the subgroups presented. “Where would be the bar for someone who doesn’t identify as one of these groups?” she asked. When McLaughlin replied that tiny groups such as Asian Pacific Islander would be included in the “All” category, Callsen clarified. “No, I mean, like, white.”
McLaughlin paused, and said, “That is not a membership group that is accounted for in accreditation purposes so we tend not to have that up there.” Callsen commented that since the majority of division students are white, that group would represent a significant portion of “All” and it would be good to see how it compared to the other breakout groups. McLaughlin said he could add that data to his chart.
The board’s discussion of the SOL results lasted about eight minutes, during which board members mostly looked to the implementation of the Bellwether instructional audit recommendations, to improve future ACPS outcomes. The board next hears about progress on those fronts in October.
Mired in the Mission
ACPS’s primary stated goal is equity: “to end the predictive value of race, class, gender, and special capacities for our children’s success.” The aim is for all students to end up with the same outcomes on achievement measures regardless of those factors. To monitor its progress, ACPS looks at “achievement gaps”—the differences between the SOL pass rates of various demographic groups within the county student population. Though the division has, for many years, grounded much of its policy agenda in efforts to close those gaps to achieve its mission, the divides have remained remarkably durable.
In a recent study, the UVA-based Virginia Equity Center compared reading SOL pass rate gaps from 2006-2019 across all 132 school divisions in the state, and ACPS’ gaps were found to be among the very highest. The data showed that Albemarle’s reading SOL pass rate gap between white and Black students has not been smaller than 30 points in the last nine years, and consistently ranks among the five worst divisions in the state by this measure, reaching the dubious number one spot in 2015. The Gazette updated the report’s data to 2023, and this year’s result—a 39-point difference in reading pass rates—shows ACPS has the third widest gap in Virginia.
The division’s socioeconomic achievement gap is just as bad. According to the Equity Center report, ACPS spent the years from 2014-2017 with the widest reading proficiency gap in the state between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students, worse than much poorer and more diverse counties. This year Albemarle’s gap is a punishing 38 points, two points wider than last year and the second worst gap in Virginia.
The gaps in math achievement are no better for either demographic. Math pass rates for economically disadvantaged students are 39 points lower than those of other students this year, and the difference between white and Black students on math assessments is 38 points. The trend is dispiriting as well, as both racial and socioeconomic status reading gaps actually widened from last year to this.
In the fall of 2022, the School Board set a high bar for the future when they established a set of achievement targets for various subgroups going forward. For instance, a target reading SOL pass rate for Black students was set at 57% for 2023, an aspirational seven-point improvement from the 2022 results. The target rates increased by an additional seven points in each of the following three years, up to a 77.5% pass rate by 2026. In reality, the 2023 actual Black student pass rate declined to 48%, and none of the other subgroups came close to reaching their targets.
Board member Callsen inquired about the targets at the September 14 meeting. “I vaguely recall that at some point last year we set target goals for what we wanted to see with SOL data,” she said. “I’d like to see a slide of where we did and didn’t hit the goals, and see that [achievement target] table getting filled in. … I mean, how did we even set those goals?” Board member Berlin agreed that examining the targets would be good for “an open, transparent process.” McLaughlin said he would send that data to the board, though he did not specify when or if he would present it in a future public meeting.
When asked by board member Kate Acuff how Mountain View Elementary was able to pull itself out of its tenuous conditional accreditation status from last year, McLaughlin said, “It’s hard to pin anything on any one thing. If we could simplify it, then we’d do that everywhere, right? I think we wouldn’t have seen improvement without strong leadership and teachers at that school … but it’s hard to be able to pin it to one thing.”
Where Are They Now
Chronic absenteeism is a large and growing problem in ACPS schools, as it is across the U.S. Division-wide, almost 18% of students were “chronically absent” last year, meaning they missed 10% or more of instructional days during the school year, whether excused or unexcused. That percentage was 26% for Black and Hispanic students and over 30% for economically disadvantaged students.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, students who cannot read at grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read on grade level by the third grade. A student who is chronically absent in any year between the eighth and twelfth grade is seven times more likely to drop out of school.
The Virginia Department of Education has waived student absentee rates as a factor in school accreditation for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school year because it says absenteeism is “not necessarily an accurate indicator of the school’s programs and efforts to engage students in attending school.” Superintendent Haas said that research indicates that the drivers of absenteeism are pandemic-related, in that much of the historic emphasis placed on regularly attending school was sapped by the long period spent not attending.
“During the pandemic there were a lot of messages around not coming to school—if a student had a temperature or wasn’t feeling good, don’t bring them to school,” said Haas. “We’ve got to start flipping that message, and some of that starts with school nurses. When do we want students to come?—we want them all the time. Another thing is that parents have kind of reevaluated life, and the growth in absenteeism is not necessarily related to kids doing poorly in school. The message they tell their kids is, ‘You don’t feel like going today? You’re stressed out? You should stay home.”
ACPS is running a campaign to boost attendance this year. “It’s called ‘Every Day Counts, Every Minute Matters,” said Haas. “We’re building in rewards at the school level, like attendance flags and rewards for the best attendance for the school, to try to promote positive attendance. You know, if you don’t come, there are other people there expecting to see you, like your friends, and if there’s a lot of absenteeism in a class, it brings the whole class down.”