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County, State Passing Rates Fall on New Math SOLs

More rigorous math assessments contribute to widened achievement gaps in Fairfax County

Fairfax County Public Schools students largely outperformed their peers on the 2011-2012 Virginia Standard of Learning (SOL) tests, including on more rigorous state math standards introduced for the first time last year.

Ninety-four percent of all county students across grade levels passed English subject tests, compared with the 89 percent state average; 90 percent of Fairfax County students passed history-social science subject tests, compared with the state's 85 percent.

FCPS scores in both areas were up a percentage point

While more than 78 percent of students in Fairfax County passed the state's new math tests, compared with 68 percent statewide, the rate was much lower than the 92 percent passing rate the county had seen the year before.

School district spokesman John Torre said the decline in math scores was not unexpected.

"The drop in math scores is similar to what happened back in 2005, 2006, when the math SOLs were added to grades 4, 6 and 7, but the test scores quickly rebounded in the following years, and we expect the same turnaround in the years to come," Torre said.

Aside from the lower score overall, the achievement gap between all white and minority, disabled and disadvantaged students in mathematics has grown wider — the most dramatic, a 36 percentage point gap between white FCPS students and those with disabilities.

The results stray from a largely downward trajectory the system has enjoyed over the past three years: The gap between black and white student test scores in mathematics fell from 15 to 13 percentage points between 2009 and 2011; the gap between Hispanic and white students narrowed from 16 to 11 percentage points, according to the system.

In the 2011-2012 year, the gap between black and white student test scores in mathematics was 25 percentage points; the gap between Hispanic and white students was 26 percentage points and the gap between disabled and white students was 36 percentage points.

Statewide, the gaps among those groups were 23 points, 14 points and 35 points, respectively.

The achievement gaps in other subject areas are in line with previous years:

  • The gap among Fairfax County black and white student test passing rates was 9 and 14 percentage points, compared with 10 and 16 percent, on English and science exams. 
  • Among Hispanic and white students, the gap was 10 and 15 percent, compared with 11 and 16, in these subject areas.
  • Students with disabilities scored 13 and 22 percentage points lower in English and science, respectively.
  • On history exams, the gap between those groups was 14, 17 and 24 percentage points, respectively.
  • Compared to last year's scores, the achievement gaps between white students and most other demographics in these subjects either improved by a percentage point or stayed the same. Students with disabilities passed English exams at a rate 1 percent lower than last year, widening the gap between the group and White students by a point.

Torre said students in these groups have made marked progress on reading exams: The achievement gap has been reduced from 27 percent in 2002 to 10 in 2012, he said.

In June, the federal government approved a waiver for Virginia, along with four other states, that allows the state to put forth its plan to cut the achievement gap by 50 percent overall and within each student subgroup within six years. The waiver exempts Virginia systems from No Child Left Behind requirement to close the gap among all students by 2014. 

"The unrealistic and arbitrary standards in the NCLB law had become meaningless over time and were not an adequate measure of how schools and students are performing," Superintendent Jack Dale said when the system received the waiver. "... Standards are important but we don't succeed well when the standards become punitive and test preparation becomes the focal point of teaching."

But Tina Hone, a former school board member and founder of Coalition of the Silence, an advocacy group for minority, disadvantaged and disabled student needs, said "the waiver would essentially codify lower expectations for poor, black, Latino, ESOL students or students with disabilities." 

"COTS is categorically opposed to any waiver that accepts the soft bigotry of low expectations at its core. Accepting such low expectations isn't soft bigotry, it's real bigotry. And it's shameful," she said.

Despite some of the gains in the achievement gap the system has seen in recent years in certain subgroups, "low expectations are meant to leave us satisfied with slight decreases in the glaring achievement gap between these subgroups and their White and Asian counterparts," COTS member Sheree Brown Kaplan said.

"There appears to be a distinct lack of urgency in addressing the achievement gap at the highest levels of FCPS, both with the board and the superintendent," Kaplan said. "If we are serious about saving disadvantaged, minority and disabled students from poor futures, there needs to be a clear commitment to identifying the sources of the achievement gap over which the school board and superintendent have control and holding the leaders of the system accountable for implementing effective solutions."

Torre said the system will continue to seek 90 percent pass rates for all subgroups.

"The real progress that we have made these past few years in closing the minority student achievement gap has always been one that I feared could go the other way," school board member Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon) said. " With the significantly lower state and county per student funding these past few years and the Superintendent proposed and adopted classroom time reductions which hurt our neediest learners the most, I have not been surprised at the gap’s increase, only the degree of the increase."

He said part of that can be attributed to Virginia shifting the SOLS from a competency test to "one requiring subject mastery."

"I have not supported any of these decisions as they are not in the best interest of all our students nor consistent with the School Board’s Student Achievement Goals or Fairfax County’s investment needs in our human capital," Storck said.

The FCPS Program of Studies was realigned in 2011 to match the new Math assessments, Torre wrote in an email to Patch, and teachers and administrators prepared for the exams' increased rigor with additional training over the course of the school year.

Training will continue this year, he said.

As the state implements new reading and science assessments this year, the system plans to respond with an approach similar to last year's new math SOLs.

"New pacing guides have been created and training for teachers will be conducted throughout the course of this year," Torre said.

"We do expect a similar adjustment in reading and science scores next year after the new SOLs are implemented," Torre said, adding "we are confident these ongoing efforts will result in increased student achievement."

Storck said the issue would come to the forefront of the school board's discussions about the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, along with discussions around the student achievement goal reports Dale will give to the board beginning in October.

The report on mathematics achievement will be given to the board at the Dec. 6 meeting, Storck said.

This article has been updated.

John Smith September 14, 2012 at 12:18 PM
While "closing gaps" certainly is desirable, it should never, never, ever be achieved at the expense of top achievers. Let a rising tide raise ALL boats. Think about creating programs in which higher achievers coach or tutor lower achievers, as has been done in a program initiated by students at Thomas Jefferson High School and reported in the Oakton Patch on September 10th.
Kathy Keith September 14, 2012 at 12:41 PM
I agree with John Smith. Closing a gap can work from the top as well as the bottom, and I fear that with all the emphasis on "closing the gap" that this will occur. The right goal of a teacher should be to identify where the child stands academically at the beginning of the year, and then push and pull them up as far as you can. This should be done for EVERY child.
Amelie Krikorian September 15, 2012 at 05:06 PM
I have taught Special Ed. I will never understand how, on the one hand, we can create an IEP or Individualized Education Plan for some students and teach them at the rate that their disabilities dictate and celebrate their achievements based on THEIR PERSONAL GOALS -- then turn around and test them to the SAME standards as kids who don't have problems learning. It just singles them out for failure -- or at the very least, comparisons that will hurt their self-esteem. I have taught children who are struggling to learn to read at a kindergarten level still in fifth and sixth grade. And you want these children to take the same SOLs as their age peers? Really? Students who can't write more than their own name, doing the fifth grade writing SOL? Really?
Kathy Keith September 15, 2012 at 07:10 PM
I agree with you Amelie. I have taught school as well. No one who has not "been there" can understand the wide disparity of ability, learning styles,learning problems, and support that a teacher can find in any given class. Some of the pundits would say "hold them back":. Do you really want a 12 year old in class with your 6 year old? It could happen.

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