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Roanoke city schools have seen a jump in on-time graduation rates, but there’s still far to go.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
The remarkable gains Roanoke’s school division has made in its on-time graduation rate show the value and the limitations of accountability standards.
Standards and measures help to identify problems and set goals. They sometimes attract new resources; they often are catalysts for needed change. All are essential elements for improving poor performance in schools, or any institution, really.
They are less useful in identifying the right remedy to bring about the desired change. Solutions don’t come “one size fits all.”
The most effective, at least in Roanoke’s recent experience, have been home-grown — the product of fearless local leadership, innovative problem-solving specific to the barriers its students encounter and a lot of hard work by smart, dedicated professionals.
Roanoke city schools’ Class of 2013 had an 80.3 percent on-time graduation rate, a jump of 4 percentage points over the previous year’s result and the fifth consecutive year of improvement. The rate has moved up 21 percentage points since Virginia started tracking the data on all public school divisions in 2008.
This is progress worth celebrating. It also should be a prod to press on.
Despite the steady climb, the city’s high schools still lag Virginia’s statewide on-time graduation rate of 89.1 percent, a less exhilarating measure to contemplate.
Again, this is where standards and accountability provide useful diagnostic tools. Public school divisions are charged with taking the aggregated data and slicing and dicing it to lay open a picture of how subgroups of students have fared.
Should the hue and cry carried on current political winds actually effect changes in performance-based education reforms — specifically, in regard to Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests — advocates for the state’s schoolchildren should take care that tracking data on these subgroups is not sacrificed along the way.
That kind of data is invaluable for quickly pinpointing students who need help to stay on track and graduate. It can present a danger to schools, though, if it’s misused.
Roanoke Superintendent Rita Bishop, who has led her division to implement good ideas for reaching at-risk students, now has her eye on an SOL achievement gap between black and white students that grew this year to about 8 points from only about one-third of a percentage point last year.
Salem’s high school, by contrast, bested the state’s average with an 89.2 percent graduation rate. Still, it was 4.5 percentage points lower than last year’s. Data show an 11-point achievement gap between black and white students that the city’s school division will need to address.
In Salem, though, where black students comprise a small subgroup of 39 students at the high school, just one or two underperforming students can have an outsized impact, percentage-wise. It would be a misuse of data to draw broad conclusions about the school’s quality based on that.
Yet it also would be a missed opportunity if schools like Salem did not gather the data, or failed to look at it and put it to good use.
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