Virginia schools are about to get their grades.
The state legislature passed a new measure at the end of its 2013 session last month instituting an A-through-F assessment system for public schools. Supporters of the new guidelines—particularly Governor Bob McDonnell, who was largely responsible for pushing it through both houses—say it will bring clarity and transparency to the process of evaluating school performance. But 12 years after No Child Left Behind began a struggle between policy makers and educators, local leaders and experts are still wary. The last thing Charlottesville and Albemarle public schools need, they say, is another rubric to measure the effects of generational poverty and politics on education, and judging districts with vastly different demographics side-by-side is like comparing apples and oranges.
“I don’t know that anyone who has supported this bill has been able to say how this would impact what’s going on in the classroom,” said Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins. “To say that giving a letter grade is going to help our community understand the performance of our schools indicates to me that the people who are making those statements don’t understand how our schools perform.”
But comparisons and evaluations are inevitable—just ask any parent of school-age kids. Now more than ever, real estate values are tied to the perceived quality of school districts, which in turn are dependent on real estate values for their budgets. Some question whether a new assessment stacked on top of existing measures will help parents make informed choices, however.
Charlottesville School Board member Ned Michie said that when his city school-raised daughter hit middle school, they shopped around for other school options by talking to other families. “You hear from people anecdotally what these schools are like,” he said. And when they settled on staying in the city, it wasn’t because of test scores. It was love of something unmeasured on the Virginia Standards of Learning: diversity.
“Education is such a complex animal,” Michie said. “I just worry that an ABC system is going to end up being too simplistic, and more of a detriment.”
State-level administrators say schools need to be accountable, but a succession of reforms in recent decades has done little to change the system, leaving people on all sides of the debate frustrated and puzzling over what’s become a central question at the nexus of politics and education: How should we use data to measure school success?
Different data, different picture
Virginia schools already get report cards every year—20-plus page breakdowns of test performance, graduation indicators, percent passing data, teacher education, discipline incidents, and more. Interpreting the results can be mind-numbing, with silos of data organized by age cohort, socioeconomic background, and race.
At first glance, recent reports point to a performance gap between suburban and rural Albemarle County’s three public high schools and urban Charlottesville’s one, despite the fact that the city spends nearly 40 percent more per pupil. Unlike the Albemarle schools, Charlottesville High School is on a federally mandated improvement plan due to low test scores in certain areas. Graduation rates lag 10 to 20 percentage points behind in Charlottesville, and the rate of disorderly conduct incidents is dramatically higher.
CHS may have lower test scores across the board than its county counterparts, but the most recent school report card data shows it’s doing a demonstrably better job at raising those scores among its lowest-performing student subgroups than the county schools are with theirs. In educator speak, that means Charlottesville is closing the achievement gap. It also led the pack on another key measure: exceeding the federal benchmark in English among disadvantaged students by 10 percent. At the bottom of that barrel—the school exceeding the same standard by the lowest percent of the four schools—was the otherwise relatively high-performing Western Albemarle High School, which barely cleared the minimum.
In addition, Charlottesville has about as high or higher a percentage of students enrolled in advanced placement courses as county schools, and maintained slightly smaller class sizes than Albemarle.
And while the city-county dichotomy gets a lot of attention, the three Albemarle schools don’t always measure up to one another. Monticello High School’s math scores were the lowest of all four schools, and it also reported the greatest percent of teachers with provisional licenses—though it beat out all local schools on AP enrollment.