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APS Elementary Math Supervisor Shannan Ellis speaks during the School Board meeting on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023 (via Arlington Public Schools)

Arlington Public Schools says it is closing a math achievement gap worsened by Covid.

But a School Board watchdog group says the school system’s new progress report is missing pre-Covid data and paints a misleading picture of how far APS still has to go.

Overall, every student subgroup Arlington tracks — based on race or ethnicity or economic status, for instance — saw gains since in-person school resumed, according to the APS math office, which presented new data to the Arlington School Board during its Oct. 12 meeting. The new results were part of a discussion of the work of the office and math teachers to help students recover Covid-era drops in performance on state math tests called the Standards of Learning, or SOL.

The office highlighted the growth among students who scored the lowest on math SOL tests and received support from Arlington’s 10 new math interventionists. They are stationed at three middle schools in South Arlington and all but one of Arlington’s 10 Title 1 elementary schools, which have the highest concentration of low-income students. The office noted students with access to interventionists progressed more than their peers without that support.

The distinction was played as part of a pitch for more math interventionists in the upcoming budget. Elementary Math Supervisor Shannan Ellis said teachers report students with access to interventionists demonstrate more confidence in math, think more flexibly and persist when faced with challenges.

“This is for the children in Arlington County to get what they need,” Ellis said. “These are people who are working with our students [who] have the greatest need… [where] it is either highly improbable or impossible for teachers to grow them in one or more years.”

While the presentation focused on three-year trends, a “deeper dive” into more historical math data is forthcoming, Chief Academic Officer Gerald Mann told the School Board.

For Arlington Parents for Education, which formed during the pandemic to advocate for school reopenings and a focus on Covid-era learning loss, not including pre-Covid data downplays the width and persistence of achievement gaps in Arlington.

“APS should not obscure the large remaining challenges to the School Board or the public — it still has a long way to go in terms of recovering from the learning losses caused by prolonged school closures, which have dramatically increased the gap in performance between at-risk students and other students,” it says in a recent letter. “And the rate of recovery on both dimensions is too slow. ”

Virginia Dept. of Education data show the achievement gap in Arlington among Black and Hispanic and white students, for instance, was wider than the state-level gap pre-Covid. The pandemic exacerbated these gaps.

There are similar trends in the achievement gaps for students who are economically disadvantaged or learning English.

Among its issues with the presentation, APE disputed how the presentation celebrated that, for economically disadvantaged students, “APS is closing the gap faster than the state.”

“This overlooks the point above that we are ‘closing the gap’ faster primarily because there is a bigger gap to close (in comparison to the state),” it said, noting APS ranks 65th out of 130 districts in Virginia for math SOL rates for economically disadvantaged students, which is down 10 places from its ranking in 2016-17.

“In other words, not only is APS failing to improve the performance of at-risk students at the same pace as the state, in comparison to the year 2016-17, our performance relative to other districts has declined,” the group said.

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Students arrive to Gunston Middle School on the first day of school (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Arlington Public Schools is kicking off the new school year with a bit of good news related to academic performance.

Last school year, students as a whole made gains in math, social studies and science, and in almost all areas, generally exceeded statewide scores, per new testing data.

Between the 2022 and 2023 school years, the percentage of students passing state tests increased by 4 points for math, 7 points for social studies and 1 point for science, according to a presentation to the School Board on Thursday. Reading remained flat and writing dropped 2 percentage points.

Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities and those learning English, in particular, demonstrated progress. APS highlighted math pass rates that increased by 8 and 11 percentage points for Hispanic and English-language learning students, respectively.

Administrators says the data demonstrates that students are gaining ground after pandemic-era learning loss. It may also indicate long standing achievement gaps based on race, English proficiency, ability and socioeconomic status are narrowing.

Crediting teachers and new academic tools for that progress, Chief Academic Officer Dr. Gerald Mann, Jr. told the School Board on Thursday APS has its work cut out for them.

“We are seeing the work that our team is doing starting to pay dividends and recover some of the loss from the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve come a long way but we’ve got more work to do.”

Future focus areas include reading — where pass rates remained flat over last year, at 80% — and writing, which fell 2 percentage points.

Facing what one committee described a “literacy crisis,” APS overhauled how it teaches reading to elementary school students. Like other schools nationwide, APS is working to reverse years of reading instruction that critics say glossed over the basics, such as phonics, and disadvantaged students for whom reading did not come naturally.

That effort is starting to bear fruit, according to Superintendent Francisco Durán, who noted that this fall, some 91% of kindergarteners could meet benchmarks such as recognizing rhymes, words and letter sounds, up from 81% last year.

“[That] is building them up for bigger success later,” Durán said.

But this leaves a group of students, fifth grade and up, who were taught to read before these changes were made, and might still be struggling today. This year, APS is turning its attention to them.

“Our hope is that the work that we’re doing for secondary literacy this year also pays dividends in the future,” Mann said.

When School Board members asked about falling writing scores, Durán emphasized that the state test measures one type of writing: responding to a social studies or science text.

“We want students to be writers across all different types, and genres and ways,” he said. “I just want to make sure we all are aware of that because, I think long term, it could be misunderstood if we’re just speaking about writing, generically.”

Writing, more broadly, may still be a concern.

A 2019 survey of APS graduates found many graduates wished they had been better prepared for collegiate writing. School Board watchdog group Arlington Parents for Education, which recapped last week’s meeting, previously highlighted the survey, saying students were “practically begging for more… ‘writing assignments.’”

Even as the number of assigned essays increased, Mann said teachers already feel they cannot give adequate feedback on assignments.

“The biggest barrier that I’ve also heard is that ‘I just don’t have the time. I will assign it, but then I can’t give [them] appropriate feedback,'” he said.

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The title page of the report published by Black Parents of Arlington

Black students in Arlington Public Schools still see lower passing rates and are more likely to be suspended than white students, an advocacy group found, as detailed in a new report.

Black Parents of Arlington, a local group founded in 2019 to advocate for the interests of Black students in the county, published “APS in Black: Measuring Educational Opportunities for Black Students” this past weekend.

The report highlighted “long standing inequities between Black and white students in APS,” according to a press release.

The organization claims that APS was “unable to dismantle the systemic racism within its foundation,” and failed to create an environment in which Black students can “thrive academically” or are given sufficient opportunities outside the classroom.

There was an approximately 20 percentage point difference in pass rates in Virginia’s Standard of Learning test between Black and white students in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the report. Black students had an around 70% pass rate in both math and reading, while white students had an around 90% pass rate across all APS schools.

Although the disparity in pass rates vary significantly in different elementary, middle and high schools, most schools showed more than a 10 percentage point gap between Black and white students in math and reading pass rates between 2017 and 2019.

Slide from BPA report (via Black Parents of Arlington)

While three-fourths of white students qualified for advanced courses such as AP and IB classes, only 26% of Black students did in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the group’s report.

Additionally, Black students only made up 20% or less of the population in APS middle and high schools, but were more likely than white students to be suspended in most schools, the report said.

One reason for these disparate outcomes was because of the mismatch between the demographics of teachers and that of the students, co-founder of the organization Whytni Kernodle asserted.

“Many of the African American workers in Arlington Public Schools are in central office, which means what they’re not is in front of children teaching them how to read, teaching them about algebra, teaching them about history,” she said.

As of September 2020, 44.8% of students in APS were white, while 10.2% were Black, 28.4% were Hispanic, and 8.8% were Asian, according to data from the school system.

APS needs to invest more in training and other resources to address the disparities, and to avoid entrenching the “status quo,” Kernodle said.

“If you need to change the culture of a situation or an organization, you have to use bold tactics and you have really look at who you have on the ground who’s there that should be there and who needs to be shown the door,” she said.

As of publication time APS has not offered a response to the report.

The full press release from Black Parents of Arlington is below.

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For the first time since March 2020, most Arlington Public Schools students will be in their classrooms for five days of in-person learning, starting Monday.

Some students will continue at a distance, but overall, the school system says it is focused on three areas this year: accelerated learning, health and safety, and social-emotional learning, according to last night (Thursday’s) School Board meeting.

Parent groups meanwhile, tell ARLnow they are keen to see how these plans to close learning gaps and mitigate the virus’s spread are implemented at local schools.

“Accelerated learning is a key focus for us,” Superintendent Francisco Durán told the School Board during the meeting last night. “What that really means is helping teachers help students focus on grade-level material, while reinforcing what they know from the previous year and what gaps they may have to help them move forward.”

Students will be taught grade-level material with any supports needed to make the content accessible, he said. Teachers will build social-emotional learning into the school day.

Administrators pointed to performance this spring on state standardized tests to illustrate the impact of distance learning. But the data, which contrasted performance in the 2020-21 year with those of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, came with a number of caveats from the Virginia Department of Education.

Participation in VDOE’s Standards of Learning (SOL) testing during the 2020-21 school year was down “significantly” in all subject areas compared with pre-pandemic participation, according to a presentation. For example, only 75.5% of students in tested grades took reading tests in last year, and just under 79% took math tests, compared with 99% in both subjects in 2018-19.

“The major takeaway is that districts should not use 2021 SOL results to compare to previous years,” according to a presentation slide. “Given the wide variability in participation and modalities, comparison of APS students’ scores with neighboring divisions scores is discouraged.”

A few drops were particularly stark, especially in math. Performance rates dropped 20-40 percentage points for students in grades 3-8, for low-income students, for Black, Hispanic and Asian students and for emerging English-language learners.

“Virtual learning had a tremendous impact on mathematics progress,” Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Bridget Loft said last night.

In a statement, Arlington Parents for Education — which advocated for full-time in-person learning while APS was offering remote and then two-day-per-week in-school learning — said the results should surprise no one.

“Superintendent Durán and the school board made a choice to keep Arlington public students from receiving a full day of instruction for over a year. That choice had many consequences —  none so obvious now as the staggering drop in academic decline illustrated in this data,” APE said. “[It’s] the students who didn’t have access to outside tutors, at-home support from parents or pod coaches who were set even further behind their peers.”

The group said APS must tackle educational disparities with research-based best practices and increased instructional time.

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Fewer K-2 students in Arlington Public Schools, particularly English learners and Black and Hispanic children, are meeting literacy benchmarks this fall, according to new data.

All APS elementary schools recently completed the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) diagnostic, provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia, for kindergarteners and first- and second-graders. The statewide system uses the screener to gauge whether students are grasping the foundations of reading.

“It is evident that we’re continuing on a downward trend with some of the PALS results,” Superintendent Francisco Durán said during the School Board meeting on Thursday night. “That downward concern is a concern for us.”

Black and Hispanic students dropped off the most during remote learning, while students with disabilities continue to perform far below neurotypical children and the overall student population.

He said “one of the most alarming bits of data” is among English language learners at the lowest levels. Less than half of students at the most basic level who met benchmarks last year met them this year.

This partially contributes to the drop among Hispanic students overall, and explains why English-language learners are prioritized for returning to school, he said.

Older English-language learners, however, buck these trends, with some outperforming native English speakers, he said.

Durán said APS’s problem extends down to core instruction, and to reverse this, schools need to incorporate daily literacy activities and small group sessions.

“We must continue to tighten — whether it’s in-person, hybrid or distance learning — differentiated instruction to small groups,” he said. “Whole class instruction will not meet the needs of all students.”

More teachers are being trained in how to do this, but Durán said teachers need more resources.

“I want to be a broken record: Small group instruction that focuses specifically on development has got to be the key here as we build out foundational literacy skills,” he said.

Former school board candidate Symone Walker welcomed his call for changes to reading instruction.

“They’re finally talking about this,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of advocacy for it, and I’m thrilled.”

COVID-19 exacerbates a problem that has persisted for years, one she said is partially rooted in inconsistent methods of teaching literacy.

This hits close to home for Walker, whose son has dyslexia. She pays a reading therapist to teach Wilson Fundations, a program recognized for helping dyslexic children, which is used in a few APS schools but not his.

“That’s the definition of inequity right there,” she said.

Fairfax County Public Schools made national headlines last week when it revealed a significant drop in academic performance, particularly among the most vulnerable students, during remote learning. Arlington Public Schools has released other preliminary grades data, but is planning a more comprehensive grades report, to be released later this month.

 

Charts via Arlington Public Schools

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Pass rates for standardized tests held steady or dipped slightly among Arlington students last year, though the county still boasts success rates well above state averages across all subjects.

According to test results released yesterday (Wednesday), county students exceeded state pass rates on 25 of the 29 subjects included on the Standards of Learning tests for the 2017-18 school year. Arlington Public Schools expects the results will mean all of its schools earn state accreditation for the fourth straight year.

In all, county students recorded slight dips in pass rates in four of the five broad subject areas covering the SOL tests. Reading pass rates dipped from 87 percent a year ago to 84 percent; history and social sciences declined from 88 percent to 86 percent; math went from 86 percent to 83 percent; and science moved from 86 percent to 84 percent. Writing pass rates held steady at 86 percent.

APS recorded steeper declines among English learners and economically disadvantaged students, though most rates also held steady. The reading pass rate for low-income students dipped from 70 percent to 63 percent, for instance, while it fell from 69 percent to 61 percent for English learners.

The year came with some notable successes for APS students as well. A full 100 percent of county eighth graders passed their history test, matching a feat the county last managed in the 2015-16 school year.

“These results reflect the continued dedication of our teachers and staff who focus on ensuring that the individual needs of all students and families are being met,” Superintendent Patrick Murphy wrote in a statement. “I recognize that partnerships with families and community organizations will further strengthen our efforts to ensure success for all students; a core focus of our 2018-24 Strategic Plan.”

Statewide, students also recorded slightly lower pass rates than they did a year ago. Scores in all five subject matter areas dipped from last year, though state officials note that pass rates have increased overall since the state introduced more difficult tests five years ago.

File photo

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Morning Notes

Hundreds Ticketed for Passing Stopped School Buses — Last year, 618 drivers in Arlington County received a $250 fine for illegally passing a stopped school bus. A police spokeswoman said it was “very alarming” that so many drivers were ignoring the lights and stop arm on buses. [WJLA]

Firefighter Places Fourth in Bodybuilding Competition — An Arlington County firefighter, Capt. Tiffanye Wesley, finished fourth in the 40+ figure bodybuilding competition at the 2017 World Police and Fire Games in Los Angeles. [Twitter]

Arlington Bishop’s Statement on Charlottesville — Bishop Michael Burbidge released a statement earlier this week about the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Burbidge condemned “racism, bigotry and self-proclaimed superiority,” writing: “For Christians, any form of hatred, no matter who it is against, is an offense — a sin — against the Body of Christ. Each person is created by God and bestowed with His unyielding love.” [Catholic Diocese of Arlington]

Hate Groups in Arlington — The Southern Poverty Law Center lists three hate groups as being headquartered or having a presence in Arlington, though the local connection is questionable for at least two of them. ProEnglish, an anti-immigrant group, is listed by the SPLC as having an Arlington headquarters, but it has a Washington, D.C. office address listed on its website. The National Policy Institute, headed by white nationalist Richard B. Spencer, lists an Arlington P.O. box but its headquarters is in Alexandria, according to news reports. The Center for Perpetual Diversity, a white nationalist organization that is fighting immigration in Europe and pushing for African Americans to return to Africa, is listed as having an Arlington headquarters. It has an Arlington P.O. box with a 22204 ZIP code. [Southern Poverty Law Center, Patch]

Arlington Near Top of Va. SOL Results — “Pass rates for Arlington Public Schools students on Standards of Learning tests taken last spring were up in 11 cases, down in 12 and unchanged in six from a year before, according to new state data. The county school system met or exceeded statewide passing rates in all but one of 29 exams, and exceeded the statewide rate by 5 points or more on 17 of the assessments.” [InsideNova, WTOP]

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(Updated 11:30 a.m.) Almost 300 Wakefield High School students had to re-take a Standards of Learning test after staff discovered what they described as an “irregularity” during testing.

A letter to parents from Wakefield principal Chris Willmore said that on May 30 and 31, students had to move examination rooms after two-and-a-half hours of taking a test that does not have a time limit.

But, Willmore said, some students began talking while moving to the new testing area. Willmore said staff immediately reported what happened to the Virginia Department of Education, but a VDOE spokesman challenged that assertion and said it was reported after regular business hours on June 8. VDOE decided earlier this week that students had to re-sit.

Those re-sits took place yesterday and today. An Arlington Public Schools spokeswoman said around 280 students were affected.

Willmore’s full letter is below.

Dear Wakefield Families:

I am writing to let you know about an irregularity that we experienced during Standards of Learning (SOL) testing a week ago that affects your student. As you may know, some SOL tests have no time limits which means students may take as long as they need to complete the test. During SOL testing on May 30 and 31, some students needed more than the two and a half hours that had been scheduled in the rooms where they were taking tests. Although the state allows schools to move students to another location when this occurs, we experienced some talking among students while they were moving. Because talking is not allowed when students are regrouped, the APS staff who were serving as the Wakefield testing monitors immediately reported this “testing irregularity” to the APS Office of Planning and Evaluation staff who alerted the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) as required.

Although this was reported to VDOE a week ago, we did not learn until yesterday afternoon that the state has decided to void all of the student scores for these tests because of the irregularity. This means that your student is among the group of students who will need to retake an SOL test.

The SOL retakes will be given on Thursday and Friday this week. Students will be informed by their classroom teacher today about the retake. For those students who have a final exam during the time when they need to retake the SOL test, they will be excused from their final exam and their final grade will be calculated using the fourth marking period grades. Also, because Friday is an early release day, for those students who need more time, regular transportation will be available in the afternoon at our normal dismissal time.

Finally and most importantly, I want to sincerely apologize to all of our Wakefield students and families for this error. We have had an amazing year with great progress and achievement and I regret that we have experienced this mistake during our administration of some tests this year. Please know that we will do everything possible to support our students and help them finish the year successfully.

Sincerely,

Chris Willmore, Principal

In a second letter sent Thursday, Willmore took full responsibility, and urged parents not to contact VDOE with their concerns, but him.

Willmore wrote:

Yesterday, we learned that Wakefield parents and staff have been contacting VDOE about the need to retest some students.  I need to urge you again to instead direct your concerns to me.  For those I have already spoken with, I appreciate the time you have taken to share your thoughts and feelings about what has happened.

In the end, Wakefield is required to follow the procedures set in place for all schools by the state and, unfortunately, that did not happen this year. I want to assure everyone that we will implement a corrective action plan so we learn from this year’s testing difficulties and can ensure that this type of irregularity does not occur again.

An anonymous tipster said students that needed to re-take the tests had been put at a significant disadvantage, and they called on the Virginia Department of Education to let their scores stand.

“They’ve been away from the subject for two-three weeks, putting them at a distinct disadvantage,” the tipster wrote. “Someone should put pressure on the state to let the scores stand.”

The APS spokeswoman said an irregularity during a test can be defined in any number of ways, and that staff are trained to report anything that happens.

“[A] ‘testing irregularity’ is anything that happens outside the norm,” the spokeswoman said. “A student getting sick and throwing up during the test is an ‘irregularity’ and test scores are thrown out by the state for the class. Same thing if there’s a fire alarm or power outage. We have monitors in all schools during testing who must share anything that occurs with our head of testing and, then our head of testing reports that to the state.”

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2016 SAT graph (via Arlington Public Schools)Though SAT scores at Arlington Public Schools fell in 2016, they still far exceeded national and state trends.

That’s the latest from APS, which reported today its average combined SAT score in 2016 fell 19 points, to 1,661. APS Students achieved an average combined score of 1,680 last year.

Despite the drop, however, the newest numbers still easily beat the Virginia average score of 1,535 and national average score of 1,484 in 2016. The latest average score also exceeds what APS students achieved in 2014 by eight points.

“Our students continue to have a proven track record of exceptional performance on the SAT that far exceeds their peers around the country,” Superintendent Dr. Pat Murphy said in a press release. “We are very proud of their success and their level of preparation for post-secondary opportunities.”

Year-over-year, mean APS SAT scores fell three points in reading, eight points in writing and seven points in math.

Additionally, “results for APS black and white students also exceed the peers in Virginia and the nation by large margins,” the school system noted in its release.

“I am grateful for the leadership of our principals and the support from our teachers and counselors who helped to prepare our students well to achieve these impressive results,” Murphy added. “Our congratulations go out to our students and their families for successfully completing this important step to achieving their post-secondary pursuits.”

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Morning Notes

A mobile food vendor on Columbia Pike

County Considering Rideshare Subsidies — Arlington County is studying a plan that would subsidize rides on Uber and Lyft for residents who live in “more remote residential areas of the county where bus service to Metro stations is limited.” The plan, if implemented, would “replace some fixed bus service in north Arlington.” [Washington Post]

APS SOL Results — The results of the Virginia Standards of Learning tests are out. In response, Arlington Public Schools released a press release with the title “APS Continues to Make Progress in Closing the Achievement Gap.” It says: “In 2016, the APS met or exceeded the state passing rates on 28 of 29 assessments, across all grade levels and subjects. APS exceeded the state passing rates by 5 to 13 percentage points on 16 of the assessments.” [Arlington Public Schools, InsideNova, Washington Post]

APS Doesn’t Make Newsweek ListUpdated at 2:05 p.m. — Newsweek is out with its annual list of the top 500 public high schools in the country, and no Arlington public school made the list. In fact, only four Virginia high schools made the list. In 2010, every APS high school was on the list. APS says it has not been submitting stats to Newsweek over the past few years. [Newsweek]

Boxing Coming to Arlington This Weekend — A nine-card boxing bout will take place at the Crystal City Hilton hotel Friday night. [Fight News]

ACPD Wreath-Laying Ceremony at ANC — Arlington County Police brass laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday. [Instagram]

Lost Dog On the Pike — A woman is trying to find her lost chihuahua, which was last seen near the intersection of Glebe Road and 9th Street S., near Columbia Pike. [Twitter]

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2015 SAT Graph (via Arlington Public Schools)Across the country, SAT scored dipped in 2015, with the average SAT score 7 points lower than a year ago. Arlington Public Schools, however, has bucked that trend in a big way.

APS reported Thursday that its average SAT score in 2015 rose 27 points, to 1,680. The average score on the ACT, another standardized test, also rose.

“I am extremely proud of these results and appreciate the team effort and close collaboration by everyone to support our students,” Superintendent Dr. Pat Murphy said in a press release. “In recent years, we have focused on academic planning through our Aspire2Excellence efforts, and it is clear that our students are stretching themselves in their academic choices as they move toward future college and career pursuits.”

Over the past five years, APS SAT scores have increased 18 points in reading, 16 points in writing and 18 points in math.

2015 ACT Graph (via Arlington Public Schools)The average APS SAT test score of 1,680 well exceeded the Virginia average of 1,533 and the U.S. average of 1,490. Results for black, hispanic and white students “exceed the peers in Virginia by large margins,” APS noted.

The results stand in contrast to another major local school system, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. The average SAT score for Montgomery County students dropped 21 points in 2015, Bethesda Magazine reported.

“I applaud and recognize the commitment of our teachers and school leaders,” Murphy said of Arlington’s test results. “I appreciate the critical support that is provided by our families to ensure that all students excel and realize their full potential.”

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