State of the School Division: Two Perspectives

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The Albemarle County School Board heard this year’s annual “State of the Division” presentation by Assistant Superintendent for Strategic Planning Patrick McLaughlin at the board’s November 9 meeting. McLaughlin highlighted several key metrics the division used to assess its progress during the second year of the current strategic plan, called “Learning for All.” The division’s three strategic goals—thriving students, empowering communities, and equitable, transformative resources—encompass nine objectives, 47 strategies to achieve those objectives, and 64 metrics to measure whether they’ve been achieved.

Patrick McLaughlin, Assistant Superintendent for Strategic Planning. Photo: ACPS.

McLaughlin focused on a handful of outcomes corresponding to each strategic goal using charts and graphics to illustrate the trend from the 2021-22 to the 2022-23 school years. In many cases the data was broken out by student demographic group and compared to Virginia state averages. While on-time graduation rates met or exceeded state averages in all categories except for students with disabilities, they declined from the prior year for white and Asian students and for the overall student average graduation rate, which was 94%. 

Looking at Standards of Learning (SOL) achievement gaps between demographic groups, McLaughlin noted that of the 45 subcategories of test scores (for example, Hispanic students’ performance on math SOL’s), ACPS is at or above the state average in only 16. “It’s important to note that where we continue to trail the state is with our achievement gap group categories,” he said. Though the pass rates topped state averages for students with disabilities and Asian and white students on history and science SOL’s, the remaining categories ranged from 2 to 14 points below average.

The rate of course failures—the percent of students failing at least one course—improved for both middle schoolers (7.5% to 7%) and high schoolers (12% to 11%). There was a decrease in the percentage of students mastering reading by third grade, as judged by their teachers’ assessment (not an SOL). As of the end of Quarter 1, reading mastery fell from 65% to 61%, and as of Quarter 4, mastery fell from 72% to 71%. Last year’s reading SOL pass rates for third graders was 64%. 

A Panorama survey asking students if they “value school” and “feel like they belong” revealed a slight decrease from the top to the second national quintile for grades 3-5, but no movement for grades 6-12, which remained in the lowest quintile nationally.

Data on teachers’ fidelity to recently relaxed homework and grading policies showed that the percentage of students (21%) who were assigned homework over a school break (in contravention of the policy) was about the same as the prior year. In addition, 61% of students said that effort, participation, homework, and/or attendance were included in their grade, 39% had points deducted for late work, and 42% received a zero for missing work, all up significantly from the prior year and all in violation of division rules. “In general, results here indicate that in many areas we’ve moved away from close adherence to [the grading] policy,” said McLaughlin.

In terms of “empowering communities,” the percentage of staff with culturally responsive teaching [CRT] credentials increased from 22% to 31%. The credentialling push, which began within ACPS in 2015, has a goal of hitting 100% by 2025-26. The racial demographics of the teaching staff as compared to that of the student body were slightly less proportional than the prior year because the percentage of students of color in the school population went up while the staff population’s makeup stayed the same. 

A Panorama survey that asked about levels of engagement between families and ACPS found that the percentage of parents who felt engaged increased from 77 to 79%, which still put ACPS in the second lowest quintile nationally. The number of families that participated in the survey dropped from 2,144 to 956, and McLaughlin said that staff would be working on ways to increase the participation rate this year.

As for division employees, teacher retention improved from 83 to 88%, though the levels of employee engagement measured by the Gallup survey showed that 67% of employees are still “not engaged” or “actively disengaged,” virtually unchanged from 69% the prior year. A “facility conditions assessment” developed by ACPS Building Services staff ranked the physical condition of all elementary schools and placed Stony Point at the bottom of the list, followed by Broadus Wood, Murray, Greer, Hollymead, and Mountain View. The percentage of school buildings over 95% capacity increased from 19% to 35%.

More detailed information can be found on these and other metrics on the Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) website, k12albemarle.org, under the “Our Division” tab and then “State of the Division.”

A Student Speaks Out

During the same School Board meeting at which the State of the Division was analyzed by administrators, a student spoke to the board during the public comment period to describe her observations on the effects of the division’s relaxed disciplinary and grading policies. (The policies include no required homework, receiving 50% even if no work is turned in, and unlimited test retakes.) Shea Hale is a senior at Albemarle High School who is a member of the student council, involved with athletics, and the child of a teacher, and she said she is “worried about what [her] high school is becoming.”

Shea Hale, Albemarle High School senior. Submitted photo.

“When I look around AHS, I feel discouraged because I know the grading policies in place are not giving me the long-term skills I will need to be successful in college,” said Hale to the School Board. “The mindset you’re fostering for students is the idea that anything we do is simply unimportant because we will always get a possibly undeserved second chance. Students do not take it upon themselves to truly prepare and learn the material given to us, leaving so many with a lack of important skills and traits—a lack of study skills, a lack of initiative, and a lack of self-discipline.

“I feel angry when students do the bare minimum and are allowed to pass, sometimes with the same grade as those who put in the work. As a student who does my work authentically and to the best of my ability, what is going to push me and so many like me to keep going when we could get the same grade by doing nothing?

“I feel overwhelming frustration when I watch prominent students do drugs on campus, when I watch couples get into domestic disputes, when I watch teachers get struck during student altercations, and after all those incidents both big and small, I see consequences that are equivalent to a slap on the wrist. Incidents like these should make anyone question how things are being run.

“I want to be able to go to school every day and not feel disappointed. I don’t want to feel ashamed to admit I attend school in Albemarle County. We have so much potential as students and teachers alike, and I want to see it be fulfilled.” As Hale spoke, county teachers behind her in the audience rose to their feet in support of her message.

In a subsequent interview, she described the impact of shifting academic and disciplinary standards on teachers as well as students. “[Due to the retake policy,] kids just don’t prepare for things at all because they’ll always get a second chance. But then the second chance comes around, and they still don’t have those preparation skills, so then they still don’t get the outcome they want. I feel bad because students aren’t taking the material seriously, and aren’t taking the teachers seriously either. The teachers can’t keep rewriting first tests over and over.”

Hale said that physical violence among students threatens teachers who try to keep the peace, and teachers also have to put up with students who are visibly high on drugs in school. “The teachers do all these [disciplinary] write-ups all the time that don’t get addressed. For me, that’s really frustrating because what is stopping every student in the building from becoming a disciplinary issue? They know they can get away with it. It breaks my heart when I look at all these freshmen coming in who maybe don’t have household support, and they immediately fall into a crowd that is doing drugs and skipping class because there’s just so much of that around them.”

Hale said she hoped the School Board would take her words seriously. “I’m saying to them, ‘You now have students coming to your meetings—the kids who have to deal with this every day—and begging you for help. And if these are the kinds of policies you approve, then you do not care about the students or the teachers.’”

After graduation, Hale plans to enroll in PVCC’s nursing program, work in pediatric, psychiatric or drug rehabilitation, and then go back to school for a degree in hospital administration. “A lot of hospitals are kind of like our school system right now, where the people making the choices are so out of touch with what’s happening in the facility,” she said. “I want to go into admin and make real changes that will last long term.” 

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