In the first two weeks of summer break, dozens of Roanoke students returned to the classroom to retake the Standards of Learning exams that determine school accreditation.
Three months later, the push to retest students from schools struggling to become fully accredited appears to have paid off.
Virginia allows elementary and middle school students to retake SOLs if they narrowly missed passing or had other extenuating circumstances. For Roanoke Superintendent Rita Bishop, nearly every child in the urban school district whose situation crossed her desk before last spring met that definition.
She approved all but 19 of the 470 requests to retest elementary and middle school students, according to heavily redacted public records provided by the district under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
SOL scores do not become important to individual students until they reach high school and become part of Virginia’s graduation requirements. But in lower grades, the cumulative passing rates are the key measure that the state uses to determine whether a school earns accreditation.
The extenuating circumstances that came before her were varied, Bishop said.
Among them: students who broke or forgot their glasses, students who had witnessed violence or experienced trauma at home and students with test anxiety “ranging from sweating to vomiting.”
Bishop says she approved the requests when she believed it benefited students. The retakes came with additional tutoring and showed students that educators had confidence in them.
“I care about these kids deeply,” Bishop said. “If anybody thinks that what was done was in any way harmful, what we did was we made kids believe in themselves.”
Most of the students who retested attended schools whose accreditation appeared at risk. At those schools, once internal reporting showed enough of the retested students had passed, testing stopped.
When the state announced school accreditation ratings this month, Roanoke had earned full accreditation for all but one of its schools and made enough improvement at the remaining school to keep its partial accreditation status.
It’s the district’s highest achievement since the 2012-13 school year.
Some educators question both the value of retests for students and the need to retest after the school year has ended. City council members also have asked questions about the summer testing, which the Virginia Department of Education has said is uncommon.
Current and former Roanoke district educators said there was so much pressure from central office to retest students that the forms to request a do-over felt like a rote exercise with approval all but certain.
They claim when teachers refused to fill out requests, central office staff did so despite the teachers’ objections. Other times, they said, teachers weren’t consulted or even told their students would be retested.
They spoke on a condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation.
In multiple interviews over the past four months, Bishop has defended the district’s retests and said she is proud of its results. She said the district does “a good and kind job” for students, many of whom have challenging home lives and are affected academically by traumatic situations beyond their control.
Bishop said she thoughtfully exercised the discretion given to her by the state, which allows superintendents to decide which circumstances merit a retest when a student failed a test by greater than a narrow margin. Bishop has also said she believes more state school districts will follow Roanoke’s lead next year.
High school students are regularly allowed to retake SOL tests since they must pass certain ones to graduate. But until two years ago, elementary and middle school students had one chance to pass SOL tests. Ever since the change in the law in 2015, any student can retake a test as long as they meet certain criteria.
SOL tests are graded on a scale of 600; students need 400 points to pass. Only elementary and middle school students who score between 375 and 399 can retest automatically. For those that score below 375, a superintendent must approve the retest.
Roanoke retested students 2,052 times. Across the state, 15 of Virginia’s 132 districts retested more students than Roanoke, according state testing data.
But all of those districts have a larger enrollment than Roanoke.
About three-quarters of Roanoke’s retests were for students who scored within the 375-399 range, according to the state data. The rest of the retests, 460 in all, were given to students with extenuating circumstances.
When Roanoke staff want to retest a student who scored below 375, they typically fill out a form for Bishop detailing the circumstance that’s believed to have affected the child’s test performance, as well as the child’s history on practice tests and report cards.
The Roanoke Times requested copies of the forms, with personally identifiable information redacted, in order to see the types of circumstances where students were approved to retest.
Initially, the school district provided heavily redacted copies, blocking out on more than half of them all but the school’s name.
On the rest, the district redacted names and the description of each extenuating circumstance but provided grade levels, initial and practice test scores and report card grades.
School administrators and their lawyer in the city attorney’s office next agreed to provide unredacted copies of the forms showing the reasons without identifying students.
Then they changed their minds, citing state and federal student privacy laws.
The redacted forms offer a small window into the district’s testing practices.
Many of the students had a history of poor performance. Some students approved to retest made Ds and Fs in the course all year long.
Reading tests accounted for at least half of all requests; among 215 requests that were approved, the average score on those students’ first SOL attempt was nearly 50 points below passing. Administrators declined to provide a range of initial scores or an average for all students who retested.
During spring testing, Roanoke administrators typically review internal data frequently to monitor progress from day to day.
Upon request, the district provided redacted copies of those reports, which show the pass rates by grade level, subject and school on any given day.
Most of the district’s tests given last spring were administered in the first week of May. By the morning of June 1, students’ last day of class, only four schools were falling short of the minimum passing rates required for full accreditation: 75 percent in reading and 70 percent in math, science and social studies.
Roanoke gave 105 tests to students at six schools after the summer break started, according to state data. The four schools that fell short of the minimum pass rates — Hurt Park Elementary, Lincoln Terrace Elementary, Westside Elementary and Lucy Addison Middle — account for 102 of those tests.
District officials have declined to say what percentage of students passed on their second attempt.
Statewide in 2015-16, the last year for which this data is available, about half of students passed retakes.
In several instances, retesting appears to have stopped once Roanoke’s internal tracking, designed to estimate adjustments the state will make to determine accreditation, showed pass rates were close to or above the scores needed.
Lincoln Terrace ended the school year with a 72.515 percent passing rate in English, district records show. One test given on the first Monday of the break improved that to 73.373 percent. Three more tests given the next day improved the passing rate to 75.882 percent, at which point testing at the school concluded.
Similarly, Westside ended the year with a 73.184 percent English passing rate. The school gave tests on five different days during summer break as scores rose from 73.889 percent to 74.167 percent and then to 74.792 percent — a slight but significant difference that illustrates how accreditation can hinge on one child’s scores.
Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University who has written several books about high-stakes testing, said the pressure on students, teachers and administrators to raise test scores have intensified over the past few decades.
There are very good reasons to allow students to retest, such as if a child is violently ill during testing, he said. But administrators need to use their best judgment and think carefully about whether a child’s score was an anomaly that could be improved with a retest.
“If a kid has a long track record of very low performance, terrible grades, low scores on practice tests, low scores on the final test at the end of the year, then … it’s hard to argue that the low score on the final test is a fluke and retesting would take care of that fluke,” Koretz said.
“The only justification then for retesting is if you’re really going to provide serious remediation, but you can’t do it in a week,” Koretz added.
Bishop said remediation, which the state requires before students retest, is critical, and the district has honed its approach to remediation over the years to make sure it is helpful for students.
What happens typically, she said, is the district pulls teachers, sometimes from other schools, to do remediation that’s focused on the skills the student struggled with on the test.
A new teacher can sometimes explain a concept in a way that makes more sense to the student.
Before the district retests students, they try to make sure students are ready and can pass, she said.
“You wouldn’t ever want to send a kid into a second failure if you could prevent it, even when it does happen,” Bishop said. “We do everything that we can do to ensure that they can pass.”