Virginia submits new education plan for federal review

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Students’ academic growth will carry greater weight in evaluating Virginia schools under a new plan the state has submitted for federal approval.
The plan lays out how Virginia will comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. It revamps the widely criticized George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, allowing states to design their own standards of achievement and progress, and decide how to help struggling schools.
All state plans were due to the U.S. Department of Education by Monday; Virginia’s was submitted last week.
One of the biggest changes is that Virginia’s new accountability plan uses a “combined rate,” a metric that includes test pass rates but also gives credit for elementary and middle school students who have achieved a measurable level of growth, Virginia Department of Education officials said.
“I think it helps to sort of move the needle a little bit from just counting a test as you either pass or fail to acknowledging that some students who haven’t met the threshold to pass the test have actually shown that from the previous year they have grown,” said Lynn Sodat, who led the Virginia Department of Education’s effort to implement the new law.
Brandon Wright, editorial director of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has been evaluating ESSA plans nationwide. Every plan he’s seen so far has included student growth as a component, something he said is likely due in part to perceived shortcomings of No Child Left Behind.
That law passed with broad support and was signed by Bush in 2002. Its main intent was to use annual tests to identify achievement gaps and failing schools. But it came to be criticized for the sanctions imposed when schools came up short, and many said it created a culture of over-testing.
The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to weigh at least one non-academic factor, and Virginia chose to use chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year.
That’s an important issue for the department to track because absenteeism negatively impacts school performance and graduation rates, said Chris Duncombe, a senior policy analyst with the Richmond-based Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, which focuses on issues that affect low-income and middle-class people. But the state didn’t weight it very heavily, effectively taking it into account only for schools ranked in the lowest 5 percent, Duncombe said.
“We don’t see the plan as adequately emphasizing … measures beyond test scores as much as it could or should,” he said.
The state Board of Education approved the plan in July, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed off on it before it was sent last week to the U.S. Department of Education for review.
The plan isn’t “carved in stone” at this point, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.
“The board will have opportunities to revisit the plan in response to whatever issues the U.S. Department of Education might raise” or any issues raised through the public comment period, which ran through August, Pyle said.
The plan is expected to be implemented in the 2018-2019 school year.