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Peter’s Take: Amid Plummeting Test Scores Due to Virtual Learning, APS Attention Diverted to New Virtual Program

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As ARLnow reported, APS unveiled plummeting 2020-2021 SOL test scores just days before the academic year began. Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction concluded that Virginia’s SOLs “tell us… students need to be in the classroom without disruption to learn effectively.”

A recent survey of superintendents shows that many other school districts are providing additional in-person instructional time and/or intensified tutoring to address learning loss. Meanwhile, APS initially hailed its Virtual Learning Program (VLP) as one of APS’s “bright spots,” after teasing the possibility earlier this year of permanent virtual programming for secondary students. VLP saw a botched roll-out.

SOLs are part of a puzzle with missing pieces

Arlington’s SOL pass rates declined 21 points in math and over five points in reading. This is an undeniable educational crisis. The reality might be worse than the scores show. It’s reasonable to assume those most likely to pass were most likely to take SOLs. The smaller drop in reading scores misleads. Last November, the State Board of Education adopted a motion advocated by Arlington’s own Superintendent to lower the minimum pass rates for reading.

The inherent limitations of SOLs are well-known, but they are the only reliable state-wide longitudinal gauge of where Arlington’s children are relative to their peers and to previous years’ learning.

Long-standing achievement gaps widen

A year of missed learning substantially widened the long-standing APS equity gap. Closing it must be central to addressing system-wide losses. Regrettably, the Aug. 26 School Board presentation buried the comparison of minority vs. white student performance within the last two slides of a 70-page deck: declines in passing rates of 12 points among Hispanic students and 10 points among Black students in reading, 35 points among Hispanic students and 30 points among Black students in math. The corresponding declines among white students are three points in reading, 13 points in math.

Minority parent voices should be given their deserved greatest weight as the entire Arlington community seeks common ground to produce major and lasting system-wide improvements.

VLP’s disastrous launch and subpar effectiveness

Despite a nationwide consensus that the vast majority of students learn best in person, APS chose to allocate to VLP the majority — at least $11 million — of its federal American Rescue Plan funds. Yet VLP’s first week was marked by reports of students without schedules or stuck interminably in “waiting rooms,” while 42 of VLP’s teaching slots were unfilled on the first day.

Although VLP has improved since its disastrous launch, this school year must be VLP’s last. APS should strictly limit participation in any future virtual program by adopting criteria similar to those Fairfax, and even the nation’s largest school district, have adopted.

County Board not off the hook

The County Board has been AWOL. Sure, “it’s up to APS how to spend the money we give them,” its members might claim.

But the current county/APS revenue-sharing agreement is irretrievably broken. There is a long-term structural deficit in the county’s operating budget, significantly driven by long-term APS growth. There is an even greater long-term structural budget deficit in APS’s own operating budget itself.

When the School Board chair says that this school budget year will be tough, she’s left out the rest of the story: so will every subsequent budget year until the county and APS straighten out their dysfunctional budget relationship.

Without a combination of major reallocations of resources within APS and special infusions of new cash from the County Board, Arlington won’t be able to even minimally fund:

  • A system-wide learning loss program
  • Appropriately targeted efforts to close achievement gaps
  • Reductions in class sizes to address overcrowding
  • Effective world language programs at all grade levels

Conclusion

APS announced last week a variety of beginning-of-year assessments, but it must quickly get more serious about adding instructional time to address learning deficits amid a widening equity gap. While APS is obligated to quickly find a way to meet the needs of those counting on VLP this year, virtual learning after this year should be limited by strict participation criteria. The gravity of the situation demands that the County Board step up to its fiduciary obligations on critical APS resource decisions.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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