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Daily Howler: Omigod! Our original understanding of Virginia's retesting turned out to be correct
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FACTS EMERGE! Omigod! Our original understanding of Virginia’s retesting turned out to be correct: // link // print // previous // next //

TELL THEM MAYOR BROWN IS HERE: Today, we offer a slightly truncated post because we’re off on special assignment; we’re off to DC (well, actually, Rockville) to say hello to our fave, Willie Brown, as he broadcasts his transplendent radio show from the DC area. Each morning, The Mayor teams up with comedian Will Durst (our long-time pal) and—of course—with third amigo Paul Wells on the Will & Willie show, broadcast on 960 The Quake, right there in San Francisco. We do a spot by phone each Thursday. This morning, with The Mayor in town, we’ll be doing it live. Live from Rockville!

What’s not to like about Mayor Brown? For audio and podcasts, click here.

Continuing story: Yes, Virginia!

SLOWLY, FACTS EMERGE: We won’t post a full report today because of our session with Mayor Brown. But yesterday, some basic facts emerged, at last, about those puzzling Virginia test scores—and, as things occasionally happen, our original understanding turned out to be right. Here’s how Virginia’s retesting has worked: If third-graders failed the third-grade test, they would retake the third-grade test a year later, in the spring of their fourth-grade year. If they passed that third-grade test, they would get lumped in with the actual third-graders who had passed the test that year. This helped produce pleasing “passing rates”—and a giant scam on the public. (Basic links to past reporting will be found below.)

To be specific, let’s explain how this worked at Maury Elementary (Alexandria, Virginia) last spring, the spring of 2005. As we have noted, Maury’s 19 third-graders took the third-grade reading test—and only 5 of the 19 passed. But at the same time, an indeterminate number of fourth-grade students were given this same third-grade reading test. (Let’s repeat—these were fourth-grade Maury students, nearing the end of their fourth-grade year. They were taking this test in the spring of 2005, at the same time the third-graders were taking it.) Twelve of those fourth-grade students passed—and that number was added to the total of third-grade students who had passed the reading test. Incredibly, Maury ended up reporting that seventeen out of 19 third-graders had passed—an astounding departure from reality. (These are the raw data which helped produce Maury’s 92 percent passing rate for grades 3 and 5 combined.) At Maury, twelve of the seventeen students who passed the third-grade test were, as a matter of fact, fourth-graders. As we’ve said, only 5 out of 19 third-graders passed. But the public was told 17.

It’s hard to find words to express the depth of misinformation involved in this procedure. But we’ll discuss that more tomorrow. For today, let’s offer more info.

Three important things happened yesterday, two of which helped settle the basic facts of this matter:

First, Virginia’s “school report cards” became accessible again at the state’s web site. The link went back up in the afternoon. To use it, you can simply click here.

Second, and much more important: We heard from public school activist Mickey VanDerwerker, a mother of three and a public school teacher who has been pursuing issues like this in Virginia since 1998. We spoke with VanDerwerker by phone, and she linked us to the web site maintained by her group, Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs. For those who want to move ahead quickly, here’s the link to a report about the issues we’ve been discussing. Meanwhile, VanDerwerker gave us the link to a second site which has dealt with these issues. We’ll allow you to click there tomorrow.

For the record, we don’t necessarily agree with VanDerwerker’s group on every possible testing issue. But we found her to be very knowledgeable and quite fair-and-balanced. We suspect you can learn from her site.

Third, also quite important: Charles Pyle of the Virginia Department of Ed sent us a detailed, informative letter explaining the way this program has worked. We’ll post the letter below; we think you’ll see that it describes the facts as we originally understood them—just as Monte Dawson, Alexandria testing director, had seemed to explain them last month. VanDerwerker and the state DOE come down on different sides of many issues. But we think you’ll see that VanDerwerker and Pyle agree on the basic facts about how this program has worked. (Pyle also explains the technical problems which had school report cards off-line these past weeks.)

Finally, VanDerwerker spoke with us about her attempts to get news orgs to report on this matter in the past several years. (Virginia’s “Remediated Recovery” program went into effect in 2001.) We’ll discuss that more tomorrow. Since we’re talking about a public information program, this is an important part of this story. She also discussed the role of Virginia pols in the continuing existence of this program.

Do people deserve to get basic facts about achievement rates in their public schools? As we’ve seen, the public has been grossly misled about those “passing rates” at Maury. But then, this retesting procedure has inflated passing rates all across the state of Virginia. Much more on this tomorrow.

By the way, one last key point: Maury was following state procedures when it produced that high passing rate. Yes, we think Maury’s parents were clearly misled when they were handed that high passing rate. But this was part of a statewide program. This wasn’t something that Maury Elementary or the Alexandria system dreamed up.

WE GET LETTERS: As noted, Virginia DOE spokesman Charles Pyle sent us an informative e-mail about the way this program has worked. It follows below, reprinted in full. We think you’ll see that this letter describes the basic facts as we understood Dawson to have explained them. As you can see, the program will be changing in some ways this year; Virginia will now be testing on all elementary and middle school levels, from grade 3 through grade 8. (Fourth- and sixth-graders will have statewide test of their own.) That in mind, note the passage we highlight below. It would seem that confusion will continue:

Mr. Somerby, The Virginia Department of Education state, division, and school report cards were taken down due to the occasional display of "error" messages rather than selected reports.

As our Office of Information Management worked to address the problem, the report cards were restored or reactivated from time to time to determine whether the steps taken had the desired effect. This accounts for your discovery that the online report cards were still accessible, despite the notice posted on the department Web site.

Remediation recovery was approved by the Board of Education in 2000 to provide an incentive and reward for schools that successfully remediated students who failed Standards of Learning tests in English and mathematics in grades K-8 and end-of-course high school mathematics tests. Students who are unable to demonstrate minimum competency on an SOL test have serious academic deficits. The Board felt it was proper to reward schools that provided remediation and prepared these students for successful retakes. Given that pass rates for retakes are much lower than for first time test takers, remediation recovery also removed an unintended penalty for schools that attempted to help these students and then retested to determine whether the remedial instruction was successful.

Here are the Board of Education guidelines on remediation recovery that were in effect through last year:

Standard: 8 VAC 20-131-30.C. Remediation Recovery.
In kindergarten through grade eight, students may participate in a remediation recovery program as established by the Board in English (Reading, Literature and Research) and mathematics or both. In grades nine through twelve, the remediation recovery program shall include all retakes of end-of course SOL mathematics tests only. However, students in the ninth grade who are participants in a remediation recovery program may be retested on the eighth grade English (Reading, Literature, and Research) and mathematics SOL tests.

Students in grades K-8 are not required to retake Standards of Learning (SOL) tests unless they are retained in grade and have not previously passed the test or they are placed in a remediation recovery program developed by the local school board. Students in high school are not required to retake end-of-course SOL tests unless the student previously failed the course and the test or the student needs to earn verified credit for graduation.

Remediation recovery is a voluntary program that schools may implement to encourage successful remediation of students who do not pass certain SOL tests in grades K-8 and high school mathematics. Remediation recovery programs are limited to grades K-8 English (Reading, Literature, and Research) and mathematics tests and high school mathematics only.

The Board of Education does not expect that every student who fails an SOL test be placed in a remediation recovery program. However, students who retake an SOL test must have participated in some form of remediation to be eligible to be retested under remediation recovery. Students in remediation recovery programs are expected to retake the applicable SOL test at the next regularly scheduled administration of the test and students may only be counted in remediation recovery once for one grade/SOL test. At the high school level, students may continue to retake end-of-course tests as many times as necessary to earn verified credit.

Placing a child in a remediation recovery program in English (Reading, Literature, and Research) and/or mathematics does not penalize a school if the student is not successful on the retake of an SOL test. Students who are successful on a retake of an SOL test are counted in the number of students passing a test but not in the number of students taking a test when calculating the passing rate for the school. As always, the scores of the student count at the school where the remediation and re-testing takes place. For example, a fifth-grade student fails the 5th grade mathematics test and is promoted to the 6th grade in a middle school. The student, who is remediated during the next school year, and who retakes and passes the 5th grade test, will count as a pass for the middle school. This would also be the case with a student who is promoted to the 9th grade, is retested on the 8th grade English (Reading, Literature, and Research) or mathematics test. For high school end-of-course tests, remediation recovery is only available in mathematics.

The following students may not be included in remediation recovery programs:

1. Students in grades K-8 who are retested because they were retained and had not previously passed a grade-level test in English (Reading, Literature, and Research) or mathematics.

2. Students who retake an end-of-course test as a result of failing and retaking a mathematics course at the high school. Schools shall maintain evidence of a student's participation in a remediation recovery program along with the scores of any SOL tests taken following remediation in the student's record.

In October 2005, the Board adopted revised guidelines for accreditation ratings earned during school year 2005-2006 only. Here is the agenda item from the board meeting: [link]

Under the revised guidelines, a student who failed the grade-3 reading test during 2004-2005, received remediation, and passed the grade-4 reading test this year would count twice for the school, once in both the numerator and the denominator as a fourth-grade student, and once in both the numerator and denominator as a remediation recovery student. There would be no "bonus point" but the student would count as an extra passing student in calculating the school's accreditation rating.

The Board is in the process of revising the regulations popularly known as the Standards of Accreditation (SOA). Once the revised SOA is in place, the Board will develop new guidelines for how remediation recovery will factor into the calculation of accreditation ratings.

The online school report cards, in addition to displaying accreditation information, also display the disaggregated pass rates of first-time test takers in reading, mathematics, and other subjects that drive Adequate Yearly Progress ratings under No Child Left Behind and grade-level achievement reports for first-time test takers in all subjects. Viewers are able to compare the success of first-time test takers with the accreditation pass rates or accreditation scores that reflect the adjustments made under the SOA, including remediation recovery.

Best Regards,
Charles B. Pyle
Director of Communications
Virginia Department of Education
P.O. Box 2120
Richmond, VA 23218-2120

As noted, this is very informative. We think this program was an awful idea. But we obviously thank Mr. Pyle for passing on this information.

BASIC LINKS: On February 2, Maury Elementary hit the top of the Post’s front page. You know what to do—just click here.

We questioned this story the following week. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06, then click forward from there.

Post reporter Jay Mathews followed up on February 28. Click here to read every word.

We responded all last week. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/06, for our first installment.

For the full text of Monte Dawson’s two e-mails, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/06.

For a link to access Virginia’s “school report cards,” you can, at long last, just click here.