Changing accreditation comes with changes to tests

FRONT ROYAL — Between the 2004-2005 school year and the 2012-2013 school year, schools in Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties failed to be fully accredited a total of four times. Since then, the numbers have risen sharply.

Last year, 10 schools between the three counties were listed as “partially accredited,” a step down from full accreditation. This year, for the first time in more than 15 years, the Virginia Department of Education is likely to deny accreditation to multiple schools in the region.

According to administrators for the three districts, changes in the annual Standards of Learning tests, which dictate to a large extent how schools are evaluated, are the main factor in the schools’ accreditation problems.

“I would say that [the tests] were not as rigorous and (were) simpler in terms of the structure of the questions,” said Mark Johnston, superintendent of Shenandoah County Schools. “And what has happened over time is those tests have become more complex.”

Warren County Schools Superintendent Gregory Drescher said that simple math questions became more complicated in the 2012-2013 school year. Previously, he said, an elementary school child might have been asked what four times three equals.

“The standard, when it changed, ended up being: ‘What are four ways you can multiply to get to 12,'” Drescher said. “So it’s still multiplying and you still get to 12, but it’s a much different level of understanding.”

A year after the math tests changed, Drescher said, the tests for English changed.

Those changes were met by dropping performances in the Standards of Learning tests across the state, data from the Virginia Department of Education shows. Following the 2012-2013 school year, around 77 percent of schools were fully accredited, down from around 93 percent the year before. Only about 68 percent of schools were fully accredited following the 2013-2014 Standards of Learning tests, the data shows.

“You can see almost across the board when it happened,” Drescher said.

Since then, the districts have been trying to catch up to meet the higher standards. Frederick County Schools Assistant Superintendent Jim Angelo said these efforts to be fully accredited have been slowly working in the district.

Angelo noted that his district has had an increasing number of schools reach a fully accredited standard in the past three years. In the 2014-2015 school year, nine schools failed to reach that standard; that number decreased to six in 2015-2016 and five in 2016-2017.

“We’ve been stair-stepping for the past three years,” Angelo said.

Angelo said that he could not say what the exact accreditation status would be for all of the schools because the Virginia Department of Education does not release official accreditation ratings until the middle of September. But he suggested that the number of schools that are fully accredited would increase from last year.

Even if the number of fully accredited schools does increase from last year, Frederick County Schools could still see up to three schools having their accreditation denied. Gainesboro, Redbud and Stonewall elementary schools  have all failed to be fully accredited the last three years.

Schools that fail to reach full accreditation for four years in a row are either denied accreditation or receive the higher status of a “reconstituted” school.

Angelo said that the district expects that Stonewall Elementary School will be fully accredited and that Redbud Elementary School will likely meet the standard for reconstitution.

“As for Gainesboro, that’s a question mark for us right now,” Angelo said. “But it’s really difficult to respond to that without having that information directly from the state.”

Warren and Shenandoah county schools will both have at least one school with denied accreditation, according to their superintendents. In a meeting Wednesday of the Warren County School Board,  Drescher said that Ressie Jeffries Elementary School will have its accreditation denied for the next school year, missing the benchmark pass rate by 3 points.  Johnston said that North Fork Middle School and W.W. Robinson Elementary School will have their accreditation denied next year.

Until the Virginia Department of Education releases accreditation rankings in September, it is impossible to know how many other schools will have their accreditation denied. According to a news release the Virginia Department of Education sent out last year, up to 145 schools could see their accreditation denied this year.

Last year around 5 percent of all schools had their accreditation denied.

Once a school has had its accreditation denied, the district has to submit a plan to the state that spells out how the school plans on improving.