Students and teachers of Miles Jones Elementary School say “see you later” for summer break, June 15, Richmond, VA. Teachers held clapping toys and cheered as the students walked to the buses to go home on the last day of school.

More Virginia schools meet the state’s full standards of accreditation under a new system that officials trumpet as a better way to judge schools.

The Virginia Department of Education unveiled its annual accreditation ratings Thursday, the first release since the state’s education board revised its standards to shift away from a focus solely on accountability test pass rates to include other factors while rewarding growth and progress rather than just proficiency.

The new way of grading a school puts results in one of three buckets - formally, numbered levels - that combine to determine a school's rating; a metric which will take into account growth, achievement gaps and absenteeism, among other things.

With the system, 92 percent of Virginia’s public schools – 1,683 of 1,821 – are accredited this year, up from 86 percent last year under standards that focused almost solely on how students fared on Standards of Learning tests. Another 130 are accredited with conditions, a status once called partially accredited.

No school in the state had its accreditation denied in the first rollout of the new standards, with that label coming next year only if a school doesn’t implement a state-monitored improvement plan. Under the old standards last year, 87 schools were denied accreditation, including 19 in Richmond.

“These ratings show that — in the vast majority of our schools — most students are either meeting or exceeding Virginia’s high standards, or they are on their way toward grade-level proficiency,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in a statement. “But the ratings also reveal that in many schools, there are achievement gaps undetected by the previous accreditation system.

“Every student in the commonwealth deserves a high-quality educational experience, and we hope that by shining a light on these gaps our schools will continue to develop innovative strategies that result in equitable outcomes for our children.”

New standards

Thursday’s release served as the first look of how the state is judging schools under the system it hopes will give a more comprehensive view of the quality of a school.

The system, approved by the Virginia Board of Education last fall, hadn’t seen changes to this scale in the past 20 years.

Elementary and middle schools are now being evaluated on proficiency and growth in English reading and writing achievement, including the progress of students learning English as a second language, as well as performance in math and science. Achievement gaps in English and math, along with absenteeism, will also be used to evaluate those schools.

Schools are also being judged in how they reduced chronic absenteeism, which affects one in 10 students across the state, according to a University of Virginia study, with absence rates being worse in Virginia’s urban school districts, including Richmond.

Ratings for high schools will depend on similar factors, but also will include schools’ graduation rates and dropout rates. Starting in 2021, with a to-be-determined indicator, a school’s ability to prepare students for college and careers will be weighted in the rating.

“The new system is already helping school divisions focus resources where they are most needed to ensure that all children are receiving a high-quality education,” Virginia Board of Education President Daniel Gecker said in a statement. “Rather than putting a label on a school, we are helping schools and the communities they serve set priorities and plan for continuous improvement.”

Performance on each factor is rated at one of three levels: level one for those that meet or exceed the state standard or show “adequate” improvement; level two for schools near the state standard or are making progress from their level three distinction, which is given to the schools that are below standard.

The state standard on English, for example, is a 75 percent pass rate. If a school meets or beats that pass rate, they’re on the first level. If it’s near – or between 66 and 74 percent – it’s level two. Level three is for the schools that are below that standard.

Level three is also given to schools who are at level two for more than four straight years.

Those levels ultimately determine a school’s accreditation rating.

If every indicator – proficiency and growth, absenteeism, etc. – is at either level one or two, a school is considered accredited. Schools with one or more level three performances are accredited with conditions.

A school is denied accreditation only if it doesn’t adopt or implement a state-approved corrective action plan to address the poor performance that led to a level three indicator. Under the old standards, a school was denied accreditation if it had four straight years of poor performance that led to the school not being fully accredited.

The new accountability system is the highlight of Virginia’s mandated federal education plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the replacement to the George W. Bush-era education law, No Child Left Behind Act. ESSA provisions took effect this year.

While accreditation ratings and SOL results are often used to publicly judge a school in Virginia, it can’t be used to compare schools nationally because they’re unique to Virginia.

Instead, researchers and public officials use the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” The test is administered to students in every state — and in the largest U.S. school districts — to make judgments across state lines, but not every student takes the test.

According to NAEP results released earlier this year, Virginia public school students are above the national average. The state’s biggest gain came in eighth-grade reading, where it had a 290 score compared with the national average of 282.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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