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Calculating the Boost

We learned six years ago that the Virginia Department of Education (aka VDOE) was cooking the numbers in the accreditation process.  The manipulation was so blatant that in 2005 it converted a 73.7 math score at a Covington elementary school into a "perfect score."

Some of us thought that the federal supervision would reduce the temptation to cook the underlying SOL scores and the No Child Left Behind process.

Some of us were wrong.  A few days ago, Carol Wolf learned that SOL scores of the students at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School are not reported at Maggie Walker; the scores are reported at the high schools in the students' home districts.  The same thing happens at other Governor's Schools.

That's right: VDOE is manipulating the data (and the AYP and accreditation processes) by giving the SOL scores of full time students at Governor's Schools to the schools in those students home districts.  As Carol put it, the State is "rewarding the Superintendents for letting some of their smart kids get a decent education."  In the process VDOE is deceiving the public and the federal government.  It also is violating Virginia law.


Unearthing the Deception

The trail starts at the SOL data on the Web.  Look there for any of the academic-year Governor's Schools and, with one exception, you will be frustrated.  I asked the Education Department about this and their spokesman replied:

Governorís Schools are regional centers or programs and do not report membership [what you and I would call enrollment] to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). Students who attend these programs are included in the average daily membership (ADM) of the schools they otherwise would have attended in their home division. Only schools that report membership to VDOE are assigned a school number.

The assessments of students attending regional centers and programs are coded with the school numbers of the schools where these students are included in membership. This is a long-standing practice that pre-dates the Standards of Learning (SOL) program.

In short, for counting students and reporting SOL scores, VDOE defines the Governor's Schools out of existence and pretends the students there are attending the high schools in their home districts. 

Thus, Sally Student is not counted as a student at the Governor's school where she is a full-time student.  But they have to count her somewhere so they count her at the high school in her home district, even though she doesn't attend that school.  If you can swallow that, the rest comes easily: Because Sally is not counted at the Governor's School, her SOL scores for the tests she took at the Governor's School get reported at the high school from her home district, even though Sally has never set foot in that school.

We can expect that Sally tested well on the SOL: Newsweek lists Maggie Walker among the Public Elites as too good to compete for the Top High Schools list.  (Also see data here and here).  Thus, for sure, the immediate effect of this VDOE manipulation is to boost the scores of the home district high schools.  We estimate the size of the boosts here.

You might wonder how Maggie Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies, which educates students in grades 9 through 12, issues diplomas to its graduates, is governed by a School Board comprised of representatives from twelve local school systems, and has been recognized by the General Assembly "for significant contributions made to school choice in public education," might not be a "school." 

It's particularly hard to see how Maggie Walker is not a school while the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax (actually in Alexandria), also a Governor's School, is a school, not a "center" or "program."  The only difference between the two seems to be that the Fairfax school is a County school while Maggie Walker is governed by a regional School Board.  Yet you'll find the Fairfax Governor's School scores on the State Web site (its SOL scores are splendid: 100% pass rates on both the English and math tests) but you will look in vain for Maggie Walker.

As far as the accreditation process is concerned, 8 VAC 20-131-5 tells us that

"School" means a publicly funded institution where students are enrolled for all or a majority of the instructional day and:
1. Those students are reported in fall membership at the institution; and
2. At a minimum, the institution meets the preaccreditation eligibility requirements of these regulations as adopted by the Board of Education.

There's not much question that Maggie Walker is publicly funded and has its students enrolled for most of the instructional day.  The preaccreditation requirements of 8 VAC 20-131-280.F are routine stuff such as appropriate promotion policies and courses that allow students to meet graduation requirements.  So it seems that Maggie Walker is not a "school" solely because VDOE doesn't choose to count the Maggie Walker students as students at Maggie Walker.

My Freedom of Information Act request to the VDOE asked for "[a]ll regulations, policies, or other public records that require or permit Standards of Learning test scores of students of [Maggie Walker] to be reported for any other school."  They produced some interesting documents from down in the bureaucracy, but no regulations or policies.  Not even a Superintendent's Memo.  That absence of authority confirms my suspicion that Maggie Walker is not a "school" solely because VDOE bureaucrats have elected, in a fully nontransparent manner, to spread the SOL wealth by not counting the Maggie Walker students "at the institution."

As well, none of the paperwork explains how Maggie Walker got to be a program while the Fairfax Governor's School is a school.  Whatever the basis for that decision, it appears they didn't write it down.

The remarks that follow relate to Maggie Walker and any of the other the other sixteen academic-year Governor's Schools (i.e., excluding the Fairfax Governor's School) that offer more than supplementary education to the local districts. 


Mendacity and Violations of the Law

This reporting of SOL scores at a school the student does not attend can hardly be said to serve the policy of the Commonwealth to promote transparency in government.  Moreover, it probably is unlawful.

The Virginia regulation at 8 VAC 20-131-300.C.1.b says that "a school will be rated Fully Accredited when its eligible students meet the pass rate [specified]."

 8 VAC 20-131-5 defines "Eligible students":

"Eligible students" means the total number of students of school age enrolled in the school at a grade or course for which a Standards of Learning test is required unless excluded under the provisions of 8VAC20-131-30 F and 8VAC20-131-280 D relative to limited English proficient (LEP) students.  (Emphasis supplied.)

Unless the State uses a different kind of English than the rest of us, "enrolled in the school" means enrolled in that high school, not off at the Governor's School.  Thus, using scores of students not "enrolled in the school" to boost the high schools' scores is flatly unlawful.

Not to mention that it also is a bald lie.


The Tangled Web of Official Deceit

We saw above that VDOE says that miscoding of test scores is a long-standing practice that predates the SOL program.  The VDOE employee who told me that is a decent fellow, so I am certain he did not know the statement is not quite true. 

A Google search turns up a 1998-99 report card (link now broken) for a Governors School in Richmond.  Indeed, the address (4100 W. Grace St.) is the address of TJ, which until 2001 housed the Governor's School for Government and International Studies (that became Maggie Walker when it moved into the current building in 2001).  The excellent performance of this Maggie Walker precursor further illuminates one motive for the deceptive manipulation of the SOL scores:

Percent of Students Passing the SOL Tests*

  Content Area




  High School English




  High School Math




  High School Science




  High School History




Who wouldn't want to claim those kids!

More to the point, there we have VDOE accrediting a Governor's School, based on SOL scores, at a time that manifestly did not pre-date the SOL program.  Thus, either VDOE counted the Governor's School students at the Governor's School that year or it ignored its alleged practice of letting the scores follow the count.  In either case we see their current excuse is founded on a falsehood.

Still more to the point, so what if they have a long-standing practice of cooking the numbers?  A history of telling lies about the performance of our high schools does not provide any reason to continue telling such lies. 


Note added on April 15, 2009:

The folks at VDOE have remained cordial, despite the disruption and extra work I have visited upon them.  They also remain unapologetic for manipulating the data. 

Shortly after I posted this page and sent the link to VDOE, I received this email, setting out in greater detail the history of the transformation of Maggie Walker from a "school" to a "center."  The interesting information in the note is that, even back when this school was a "school," VDOE counted the non-Richmond students among the membership of their home divisions and reported those students' SOL scores to the home divisions.  But the Richmond students counted at the "school."  

So it appears that the school can be a "school" for some students and a "center" for others, as suits VDOE's preferences of the moment.  And it seems that their story about a long-standing practice is true for the non-Richmond students (scores manipulated) if not for the Richmond students. 

But none of this makes data falsification a sound basis for evaluating our schools.  And even a "long-standing" history of manipulating the scores is no reason to continue the practice.


Go Figure

So what could be the actual reason for this institutional mendacity?  Perhaps, as Carol Wolf suggests, it is to obtain a free boost to the scores in order to improve the schools' chances to avoid Adequate Yearly Progress problems under the No Child Left Behind Act.   For sure, this misrepresentation of the scores will have that effect.

We are left to wonder whether the federal government knows that Virginia is sending it falsified data.


Note added on April 27, 2009:

As outlined above, the school changed its name at the time it moved from the TJ High School building into the building that formerly housed the Maggie Walker High School.  At about the same time, it stopped reporting SOL scores for its students from Richmond and VDOE started reporting those scores at the home high schools of those students (it had reported SOL and SAT and other scores to the "home" schools of non-Richmond students all along).

Perhaps I am a terrible cynic but the coincidence was too much: They changed the system to boost the Richmond scores just before the Richmond superintendent was put under a performance-based contract.  So, of course, I asked VDOE for all their paperwork on the changeover.

Their response was interesting.  As before, their response was courteous and more generous than the statute requires.  But it was absolutely devoid of paperwork requesting or granting the scoring change.  It seems that the system was so informal in those days that VDOE could approve the falsification of a few dozen SOL scores based on a conversation that nobody even bothered to memorialize.

The paperwork was more helpful as to the reason for "this institutional mendacity," as I called it above.  The minutes of the August 31, 1990 Planning Committee (planning to create the Governor's School that now is Maggie Walker) mention the concern of the Assistant Superintendent at Colonial Heights about "test scores."  Mind you, this was nine years before the SOL's; the scores in question were predominantly from the SAT.  The Committee noted:

As far as the concern with the test scores being lowered, the Committee also stated that they could make the decision that the students' SATs could be counted at the home schools.

Note added on June 12, 2011: Bill Bosher yesterday confirmed this corrupt deal.

Nowadays, of course, it's SOL's even more than SAT's but there you have the bald admission that Carol Wolf had it right: They are "rewarding the Superintendents for letting some of their smart kids get a decent education."  As if those kids somehow belonged to those Superintendents.  So we have a corrupt system for corrupt reasons.  Welcome to Richmond!

It is hard to know why VDOE would be a party to this manipulation.  That's made even harder when we look at Fairfax.  Wikipedia reports the 2007 enrollment at their Governor's School as 1807; SchoolMatters reports 1805; US News reports 1802.  VDOE reports SOL scores for an enrollment of 1805.  It appears, thus, that VDOE reports these students' scores to the school they actually attend!

The remaining question, of course, is why the Richmond area Superintendents have to be bought off with false data while the Northern Virginia Superintendents do not.

Concealing the Malfeasance?

Not only is VDOE manipulating the data and misleading the public and the federal government, it also is refusing to tell Maggie Walker the scores of its own students.

While I was looking into this situation, I heard that Maggie Walker had asked the State for the SOL results for its students and that VDOE had refused to provide the data.  So, of course, my Freedom of Information Act requests to the State included a request for documents on that subject. 

VDOE produced an undated document titled "Maggie L Walker Governorís School; Administration and Reporting of Standards of Learning End-of-Course Scores."  VDOE said the document is part of the Maggie Walker Administrative Manual.

In short, this document says that Maggie Walker personnel administer the SOL tests and then sort the answer sheets for pickup by the divisions (implicitly the "home" divisions) of their students.  Then, "[t]he individual division testing coordinators place the Maggie L. Walker studentsí answer sheets among their divisionís answer sheets and send them to be scored . . . ."  After the scoring, Maggie Walker calls the home divisions to ask about the scores. 

Did you get that: The individual divisions hand carry the answer sheets back from Maggie Walker so they can claim the SOL scores of the Maggie Walker students.

Those scores wind up in the VDOE computer, of course, so if the Maggie Walker folks have to call the individual divisions to beg for the numbers, it must mean that VDOE is refusing to provide the data directly to Maggie Walker.

There can be no good reason for the State to refuse to tell Maggie Walker about the performance of the Maggie Walker students.  The implication, then, is that the State's refusal is part of an attempted (but now failed) cover-up.  Either that or reporting the scores at the wrong schools makes it difficult to extract the truth from the VDOE computers.  Garbage in, garbage out?

Note added on 5/5/09:  Richmond Alternative School (aka CCP or Capital City Program) provides another nice boost to the SOL scores at Richmond's middle and high schools.  (Hat tip: Carol)

If you go to the RPS Web site,  you'll find precious little information about the CCP.  Our Mayor had much more to say about it:

The CCP is an alternative school for students in middle school and high school who have issues with behavior, discipline, and low academic achievement. The program is not a "warehouse" to place troubled students aside and to leave them, forgotten. Quite to the contrary, the CCP takes students for the sole purpose of getting them critical help and then getting them back into their regular schools. In addition to teaching them behavioral skills, CCP emphasizes academic achievement.

VDOE reports that Richmond Alternative had a September, 2008 enrollment of 298 and that it serves grades PK-11.  I am told, but have not been able to verify, that the kids can be sent there for up to 180 days.

For sure, the SOL scores of those kids are reported at Richmond Alternative, not at the schools that refer them to Richmond Alternative.  Those reported scores are awful: 57 in English and 43 in math for 2007-08.  That is worse than Petersburg, which scored 64 and 58 in the same year.  (You have to wonder how those scores got Richmond Alternative fully accredited, but that is another story).

You noticed, of course, that reporting the scores at Richmond Alternative implies that it is a "school," not a "program" or a "center."  Never mind that it has no full-time students of its own, only those that have been temporarily sent there from another school. 

That said, VDOE credits Richmond Alternative with three standard diplomas in 2007-08.  No telling how VDOE reconciles that with "getting them back into their regular schools" or with not having a 12th grade.  Given VDOE's baroque, opaque, and profoundly dishonest system, this just might be their attempt to embarrass the Mayor as they earlier did the Governor.

In any event, sending a student off to Richmond Alternative gives a double bonus to the sending school: get rid of a troublesome student AND get rid of that student's (probably miserable) SOL score.  Query whether that's as nice as getting the SOL score of a Maggie Walker student who doesn't attend your high school. 

Certainly if the treatment of the Richmond Alternative scores establishes the rule, the treatment of the Maggie Walker scores is entirely dishonest.  And vice versa.  Indeed, the only consistent rule here seems to be that VDOE serves the interests of local Superintendents, not of the students or the public.

There Is a Remedy

Unless we accurately measure what our kids are learning, there is no way to hold the school system, the schools, the principals, and the teachers accountable for their use of public funds.  Yet we see that Virginia bureaucrats are deliberately, and probably unlawfully, manipulating the SOL scoring to produce false and misleading results.  They are willfully subverting the testing and accreditation programs.

The term for this behavior is "malfeasance" and the remedy for it is for the Governor to fire the people who are telling these whoppers. 

How about it, Governor Kaine?  Are you going to let VDOE embarrass you as it did Governor Warner?



I thought I had clearly explained why this scoring is fraudulent until I saw a comment from "Tom" on RVAnews:

The purpose of publishing the collective SOL results of a given school is to see how that schoolís students performed, not to gauge the performance of kids who happen to live in the neighborhood but chose not to attend the school. Proper measurement is a management tool and encourages accountability. The RPS [actually VDOE] method of measuring and reporting a schoolís supposed SOL scores simply insures that the data, which RPS spends a fortune to collect, has very little reliability or usefulness.

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Last updated 11/08/12
Please send questions or comments to John Butcher