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Virginia superintendents concerned over grading system

RICHMOND (AP) -- Virginia school superintendents are worried that a new grading scale to measure school performance will end up recording poverty, not quality.

The state Board of Education met Thursday to discuss what measures should be used as it develops a formula for calculating easy-to-understand letter grades for each of its public schools.

The initial formula lawmakers considered was based largely on student performance on state tests, but researchers found that 85 percent of the schools that would score a C or below had poverty ratings of more than 50 percent, Bristol superintendent Mark Lineburg told The Washington Post (http://wapo.st/12t0Oeb ).

"We bend over backwards to help folks in poverty, and we don't want to get punished for it," said Lineburg.

Two in three students in Lineburg's small southwestern Virginia district are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.

The legislature asked the state board to develop a scale that includes test performance as well as other measures used for state accreditation and accountability.

The board hopes to approve a list by the end of July.

Still, superintendents remain concerned that it's a steep challenge to develop a system that is sensitive enough to eliminate persistent performance gaps tied to poverty.

"We know that the achievement gap walks in the door the first day of kindergarten," said Steven R. Staples, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. "Some districts have to work harder to make up for (outside of school) experiences."

Virginia's letter grades are based on a system started in Florida more than a decade ago under Gov. Jeb Bush. Similar scales have been adopted in more than 20 states.

Most of the scales include a combination of growth metrics and standardized test results, but many show a strong correlation between high poverty and lower grades, said Matthew Di Carlo, a senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute who has studied the grading scales.

In Lineburg's Bristol district in Virginia's coal country, the rate of students who are homeless has doubled in the past three years to 7 percent of the student enrollment this year. The school division has worked to help the students, including turning the basement of the school board building into a relief center for families to get bedding and clothes.

Students who are moving in and out of schools tend to struggle. Lineburg said he's concerned the new grading system will punish schools that serve those students and exacerbate disparities by encouraging some families to flee the public schools.

Superintendents from wealthy districts also share his concerns.

Loudoun County Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said he feared letter grades would be misleading.

"It's a very simplistic measure of a complex process called education," he said.


Information from: The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com

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