Youngkin criticizes Va’s school accreditation system

RICHMOND — That sounds like good news: Despite the intense challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, 89% of K-12 public schools in Virginia are fully accredited, up from 92% in the 2019-20 school year.

But Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who won the job last year protesting extended school closures under Democrat Ralph Northam, greeted the accreditation findings that were announced this week with skepticism intense — and a call to scrap the way Virginia rates schools.

“This flawed accountability system does not provide a clear picture of the academic success and progress of our schools to parents, teachers and local school divisions,” he said in a written statement released Thursday evening, as he was campaigning for a Republican candidate for governor in Kansas.

Youngkin’s rationale for doubting the grades: They’re based on pass rates on standardized state tests known as learning standards, or SOLs, and those scores have plummeted over the past year. But his push for a new accreditation system is also part of his broader effort to declare that the state’s schools need a rescue. He fought against school mask mandates, critical race theory, “dividing” lessons, liberal transgender policies, and sexually explicit books attributed without a parent’s permission.

That battle cry helped the political newcomer win the executive mansion and could fuel a bid for the White House in 2024. A busy schedule of out-of-state political travel that took him this week alone to Kansas and Texas fueled the buzz about a possible race.

Youngkin Superintendent Jillian Balow questioned the test results even as she announced the results.

“The school ratings we are releasing today do not reflect the scale of the crisis facing our schools and our students,” she said in a written statement.

She noted that accreditation had barely dropped in three years “despite significant declines in learning standards test scores in reading, math and science”.

The state has made provisions, in budget language endorsed by Youngkin, to help schools weather the post-pandemic decline in SOL scores without losing accreditation. The accreditation process still allows schools to average the last three years of SOL test results, if necessary, to even out occasional declines. The amendment allowed schools to average their most recent SOL results with scores from the two years before the pandemic.

“We intentionally put in language to save people from having to use covid data” alone, Del said. Carrie E. Coyner (R-Chesterfield), member of the House Education Committee who sponsored the amendment and said she was “not surprised” that credentials remained fairly stable as a result.

But she also said she agrees with Youngkin’s call for revamping the accreditation system to provide “a more accurate flashlight” on student skills.

Youngkin’s response upset some Democrats, who noted that Virginia schools are consistently ranked among the best in the nation. Of the. Schuyler VanValkenburg (Henrico), a public high school teacher, tweeted a link to a WalletHub study ranking them fourth.

“He’s going to get on his horse and fix everything because our school system is so broken,” said Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), a member of the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Atif Qarni, who served as education secretary under Northam, defended the accreditation standards as the “nuanced” product of extensive study and cooperation between two Democratic governors and the Trump administration.

“He’s fabricated that there’s this crisis in public education,” Qarni said, “So whenever there’s facts that show that’s not the case, he’s going to push that back. “

But some Republicans steeped in state education policy say Youngkin is right.

“The system was not designed to provide a true skill assessment,” Del said. Glenn R. Davis (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the House Education Committee.

Virginia’s accreditation standards were overhauled after Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, a bipartisan bill that ordered each state to update its accreditation standards, Qarni said. Virginia began work on its update under the then government. Terry McAuliffe (D) and completed the process in 2018 under Northam, who secured the required approval from President Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“It was not a hot topic,” Qarni said.

The main change brought by the updated standards: schools would be graded not only on overall pass rates, but on improved performance of certain subgroups, such as English language learners, special education students or low-income students.

“Under the old system, if a school division had 70 percent success in reading and math, then it was fine,” Qarni said. “In the new system, it has become more nuanced. … If you demonstrate that certain sub-groups are doing well, you will be credited.

While Qarni said the old system masked stubborn failures among special-needs students, Youngkin and some other Republicans see it the other way around — that the current one masks failures in overall performance by giving schools credit for making progress with some sets of special- needs students.

If a school falls below the state standard, state officials can get involved by conducting an academic review and requiring an improvement plan. If a school refuses to do so, the school is denied accreditation. The school’s local school board is required to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the state school board to outline actions that would allow it to regain its accreditation.

Davis described the current accreditation system as “smoke and mirrors”.

“You can actually drop in skill and increase in growth and that would look good,” he said.

Davis wants the state to continue to track overall skills as well as the growth of subgroups with special needs, but he thinks the numbers should be presented separately and the growth should not be used to “artificially inflate” the grade from a school.

Youngkin tasked Balow and Education Secretary Aimee Guidera with coming up with a school evaluation system that will give Virginia “the most transparent and accountable education system in the country.”

Administration officials could not say Friday what that system would look like.

Balow in an interview said growth and proficiency should not be lumped together because they do not adequately measure the learning loss that students face across Virginia. She pointed to state assessments and national test scores that reflect historic learning losses in core math and reading subjects, arguing that the data obviously shows that students have struggled significantly.

“It’s not that we mean schools are bad,” Balow said. “But we certainly want to make sure that we see every student in an accreditation score and that we give communities as well as school divisions an opportunity to dig into their data and say, ‘What do we need to do to improve? ?'”

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