The news that City of Richmond's public schools are (finally!) accredited, as well as 98 percent of the public schools in Virginia, was certainly good news, but it was also cause for serious pause.
Rest assured, I most certainly appreciate that Richmond Public School (RPS) Superintendent Yvonne W. Brandon spoke for many when she told The Richmond Times-Dispatch: "Our kids will reach a level of recognition, like no other year before, that they can stand proud, shoulder to shoulder with any child in the state of Virginia and proclaim that we can do it ...That means a lot to me."
But, what it means isn't exactly clear. So, for the sake of all the kids who desperately need public school systems in Richmond and across the Commonwealth to deliver on the promise of providing a quality education for all children, it is critical that we determine what this news really means (and does not mean).
Significantly -- and woefully -- missing from both VDOE's and RPS' recent announcements of their respective milestones was any mention of House Bill 304, a bill patroned by Del. John O'Bannon III (R) during the last General Assembly session and signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell. HB304 was the direct result of an investigation John Butcher and I did last year that revealed, among other things, that elementary and middle schools in Richmond, and across Virginia, were increasingly using the Virginia Grade Level Assessment (VGLA) to inflate pass rates.
Nearly all of Richmond's schools had participation rates significantly higher than the state's acceptable participation levels, despite being warned by VDOE that participation rates higher than 20 percent of the students with handicaps were of great concern. (Richmond citizens Arthur Burton and John Lloyd deserve credit not only for being outraged by what they read, but for taking their concerns to O'Bannon and asking for his help).
RPS is not only 100 percent accredited, but Richmond is now the Number One Division in Virginia for having the greatest number of Virginia Grade Level Alternative Assessments. Click here to see John Butcher's charts illustrating this. To read other data submitted to VDOE by Harley Tomey, director of Exceptional Education and Supt. Brandon, responsive to the state's concerns about about high number of VGLA use in Richmond revealed by the most recent SOL and VGLA scores reported to VDOE.
The VGLA is an alternative test designed for students with disabilities and used since 2004 that parents and teachers told us was easier to pass than the Standard of Learning exams and several causing some parents and teachers alike to worry that its overuse was tantamount to systemic cheating on the SOLs.
Ironically, State Supt. Patricia Wright and division superintendents across the Commonwealth have Brandon to thank for our investigation and the subsequent changes that go into effect this year which significantly change how the SOLs and alternative tests are administered.
Had Brandon taken the time to discuss our concerns and been able to offer a reasonable explanation for the inordinately high alternative testing numbers we found in Richmond prior to publishing our findings, we might have let the matter drop.
But, Brandon's refusal to discuss the matter only made us dig deeper. Click here to see "Beware Their Cheating Hearts," part one and part two that we published on Bacon's Rebellion online news site last October.
Our research helped generate stories in The Washington Post, The Virginian-Pilot, Style Weekly, RVANews and The Richmond Times Dispatch, all of which, in turn, helped convince the members of the General Assembly to pass HB 304 unanimously and begin to hold educators accountable.
We weren't the only ones asking questions. On February 19, 2010, two weeks after State Supt. Wright received a serious warning letter from Zollie Stephenson, Jr., director of student achievement and school accountability with the U.S. Department of Education, and after HB304 passed the House of Delegates, Wright became "concerned about the increase in the numbers of students with disabilities participating in VGLA" and issued a terse memo to all division superintendents informing them of the acceptable participation rates of students with disabilities and further directing that those divisions with scores above and beyond those limits to investigate [and] to file a report with VDOE by April 30, 2010.
She scheduled mandatory web conferences for those divisions with participation rates of 25% or more in VGLA reading or math. At the time, the State rates in both tests were close to 20% so the criterion was a (user friendly) 125% of the State rate. Here are the participation rates at some selected divisions at that time.
This is tricky since it is hard to verify that the information reported by RPS to VDOE officials is the whole truth and not some nuanced numbers game of nonsense they want us to believe with barely a blink and nary a discouraging word. To see the data detailing the VGLA participation rates for various Richmond elementary and middle schools for the 2008-2009 click here. To view the 2009-2010 rates as reported by VDOE.
Despite Richmond’s improved, but still low scores for all pupils, we found the system’s children with disabilities scored higher than the state average for kids with disabilities. Yet come graduation only 32 percent of Richmond’s students with disabilities graduate — versus 44 percent statewide. We showed how Richmond had classified 28 percent of its black male pupils as disabled compared with 22 percent statewide, with the peer jurisdictions of Hampton, Newport News and Norfolk reporting in the 19- to 21-percent range.
Our research also revealed that Virginia more than doubled its use of VGLAs during the past three years to to more than 47,000. Richmond, a district with about 23,000 students, administered nearly 3,800 portfolios last year; Loudoun, a district of 57,000, collected fewer than 1,000.
We showed how Richmond and VDOE were gaming the system by massively misidentifying students claiming they had a disability that prevented them taking a multiple choice test (when many didn't really) and we asked why VDOE seemed to be passively condoning the excessive use of the alternative tests.
Therefore, one would think that the good people at VDOE and RPS would, as a matter of professional behavior, think it important to report out about the use of the alternative assessments at the same time they announced the most recent SOL scores.
Commencing this academic year, new participation criteria will be implemented for students with disabilities. State Supt. Wright sent a memo last April informing division superintendents that "Individual Education Program (IEP) teams and 504 committees needed to be made "aware of significant changes to the VGLA participation criteria for students with disabilities that will be implemented for IEPs and 504 plans developed for the 2010-2011 school year.
"Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, IEP teams and 504 committees must determine the eligibility of students with disabilities for VGLA participation based on the VGLA Participation Criteria form that is attached to this memorandum. IEP teams and 504 committees must address each section of the form, including providing supporting documentation and a justification statement explaining why the IEP team or 504 committee has determined that the impact of the student's disability prevents the student from accessing the SOL assessment(s) even with accommodations. It should be noted that the requirement to include a justification statement for each student participating in the VGLA was mandated by the 2010 Virginia General Assembly."
One would think. But, they didn't. The big news here is that last year Richmond ranked number two in the state for the highest percentage of students taking alternative assessments, the city schools are now number one. And, officials there are furiously sticking with their stories that they've done nothing wrong. In a state that graduates only 43 percent of its students with disabilities "on-time," and, worse, in a division that only graduates 31 percent of children with disabilities "on-time," I submit that there is plenty wrong. The only way to "fix" this will require Richmond officials get past their emotions and professionally address the issues head-on.