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Virginia shouldn’t waste its unique opportunity to overhaul its school accountability system

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Virginia needs to improve its accountability system for K–12 education. A relic of the No Child Left Behind era, it has a critical flaw: It encourages schools to narrowly focus on the progress of their lowest-performing students. That’s a worthy and important objective, but it shouldn’t be the only outcome schools are held responsible for
This shortcoming is particularly pernicious for high-achieving poor and minority children, students who deserve better and are critical to Virginia’s—and our nation’s—competitiveness. They’re the most dependent on the school system to cultivate their potential and accelerate their achievement, yet that system is failing them. This is a tragedy, particularly at a time when Virginia is struggling to help these students complete college and rise to positions of leadership. For instance, only 32 percent of Black students attending the state’s four-year public universities graduate on time. Meanwhile, the Old Dominion is spending $37 million a year in “remedial education”—high-school level courses that college freshmen take because they aren’t really ready for higher learning.

Thankfully, a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gives policymakers in Richmond a rare opportunity to set schools on the right trajectory for years to come. They now enjoy far greater leeway to design a school accountability system that will work best for all students by turning annual tests results in reading, writing, and mathematics, and other information, into sound judgments of school effectiveness—what it means to be great school or a failing one.

Specifically, when Virginia submits its new accountability system to the U.S. Department on Education for approval in the coming year, it should include three components that will ensure that all kids count.

First, it should rate schools using a model that gives additional credit for students achieving at a high level—something today’s system doesn’t do. Under ESSA, Virginia must continue to track the percentage of students who attain proficiency on annual tests, but the state is free to give schools incentives for students who earn high marks. Policymakers could, for example, create an “achievement index” that gives schools partial credit for getting students to “basic,” full credit for getting students to “proficient,” and additional credit for getting them to “advanced.”

Second, the system should continue to measure the growth of individual students from one year to the next, but it should make this count for at least 50 percent of school ratings. Under Virginia’s current system, growth doesn’t count toward a school’s summative rating at all, and it isn’t publicly reported. Policymakers ought to correct this immediately. Such measures do a better job of capturing schools’ effect on student achievement than proficiency rates, which are strongly correlated with student demographics, family circumstance, and prior achievement.

Finally, Virginia should signal that high-achieving students matter and report their progress separately, much as it already does for special education students and English language learners. Whether they’re growing or languishing is important to know.

Policymakers in Richmond ought to use their newfound flexibility responsibly. Given their freedom under the new federal law to fix the flaws of the past, now is the time to ensure that all students are receiving the education they deserve. High achievers, especially those growing up in poverty, need all of the attention they can get. But for too long, they’ve been an afterthought—a fate no child should suffer. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon L. Wright are president and editorial director, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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