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Youngkin finds fault with Va’s school accreditation system

RICHMOND — It sounds like good news: Despite the intense challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, 89 percent of Virginia’s public K-12 schools are fully accredited, compared with 92 percent in the 2019-2020 school year.

But Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who won the office last year by railing against extended school closures under Democrat Ralph Northam, greeted the accreditation findings that were announced this week with intense skepticism — and a call for scrapping the way Virginia evaluates schools.

“This broken accountability system fails to provide a clear picture of the academic achievement and progress of our schools to parents, teachers, and local school divisions,” he said in a written statement issued Thursday evening, as he campaigned for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Kansas.

Youngkin’s rationale for doubting the ratings: They are based on pass rates for state standardized tests known as Standards of Learning, or SOLs, and those scores fell last 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’s combated school mask mandates, critical race theory, “divisive” lessons, liberal transgender policies and sexually explicit books assigned without a parent’s permission.

That battle cry helped the political newcomer win the Executive Mansion and could fuel a 2024 bid for the White House. A hectic out-of-state political travel schedule that this week alone took him to Kansas and Texas has fed buzz about a possible run.

Youngkin’s superintendent, Jillian Balow, cast doubt on the test results even as she announced the findings.

“The school ratings we are releasing today fail to capture the extent of the crisis facing our schools and students,” she said in a written statement.

She noted that accreditation had barely dipped from three years ago “despite significant declines in achievement on Standards of Learning tests in reading, math and science.”

The state made provisions, in budget language approved by Youngkin, to help schools weather the post-pandemic slide in SOL scores without losing accreditation. The accreditation process always allows schools to average the past three years of SOL test scores, if needed, to even out occasional dips. 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, said Del. Carrie E. Coyner (R-Chesterfield), a House Education Committee member who sponsored the amendment and said she was “not surprised” that accreditations held fairly steady as a result.

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

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

“He’s going to ride in 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 was education secretary under Northam, defended the accreditation standards as the “nuanced” product of careful study and cooperation between two Democratic governors and the Trump administration.

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

But some Republicans steeped in state education policy say Youngkin has a point.

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

Virginia’s accreditation standards were revamped after Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, a bipartisan bill that directed every state to update their accreditation standards, Qarni said. Virginia began working on its update under then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and wrapped up the process in 2018 under Northam, who got the required sign-off from President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

“This was not a hot issue,” Qarni said.

The main change delivered by the updated standards: Schools would be rated not just on overall pass rates, but on improved performance among certain subgroups, such as English language learners, special education students or low-income students.

“In the older system, if a school division had 70 percent pass reading and math SOLs, then they were fine,” Qarni said. “In the new system, it became more nuanced. … If you demonstrate that some subgroups doing well, you would get credited.”

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

If a school loses accreditation, state officials get involved, reviewing lesson plans, requiring more reports and, if improvements aren’t made, the state can take over and operate the school.

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

“You can actually fall off on proficiency and increase on growth and it would look good,” he said.

Davis wants the state to continue tracking overall proficiency as well as growth among special-needs subgroups, but he thinks that the numbers should be presented separately and that growth should not be used to “artificially inflate” a school’s rating.

Youngkin has tasked Balow and state Education Secretary Aimee Guidera with coming up with a system for evaluating schools that will give Virginia “the most transparent and accountable education system in the nation.”

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 it does not adequately measure the learning loss that students are facing across Virginia. She pointed to state assessments and national test scores that reflect historic learning losses in core subjects in math and reading, arguing that the data evidently shows students have substantially struggled.

“It’s not that we want to say schools are doing poorly,” Balow said. “But we certainly want to make sure that we’re seeing every student in an accreditation rating and that we’re giving communities as well as school divisions an opportunity to dig deeper into their data and say, ‘What do we need to do to improve?’”

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