Rappahannock County schools ahead of the curve

Rappahannock County Public Schools is one of 34 school divisions among the state’s 132 that already meets all of the Virginia Department of Education’s new benchmarks for reading, mathematics and graduation rates.

VDOE has directed 485 schools around the state to come up with improvement plans to raise the achievement of students that fell short of federal annual measurable objectives (AMOs) in reading and mathematics, according to a recent press release. Based on results published by VDOE last month in  the school division’s annual “Report Card,” however, Rappahannock doesn’t need to create the plan.

“It’s very exciting news,” said Aldridge Boone, Rappahannock County’s superintendent of schools. “Especially in light of the math objective being very hard to make.”

“We’re very proud of our schools,” said school board chair John Lesinski earlier this week. “We have an excellent staff who have all worked very hard to ensure our students receive a good education.”

The AMOs are part of a nationwide replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2001 legislation that supported standards-based education reform (called annual yearly progress, or AYP). According to Carol Johnson, the school division’s director of instruction, part of the reason for the adoption of new standards is the “unrealistic” expectations of NCLB.

“Under NCLB, there were 25 different categories that students fell into,” Johnson explained. “Missing any objective meant failure; and the benchmarks for reading and mathematics for every group were increasing toward 100 percent. That’s obviously very hard to achieve.”

Before the start of the 2012-13 school year, Johnson said, Virginia applied for a waiver to be released from the AYP standards; the state subsequently adopted the AMOs, which allow each state to set its own parameters for success.

Under AMOs, those 25 categories have been condensed into just three: Gap Group 1, which includes all students with disabilities and English language learners; Gap Group 2, which consists of black students; and Gap Group 3, which consists of Hispanic students.

According to the recently released VDOE report card, which measured the students’ performance on the Standard of Learning (SOL) tests, Rappahannock County Public Schools achieved the overall AMO standards for 2012-2013, and even managed most gap group requirements. (Some sample sizes from the county schools were deemed “too small” to be properly evaluated.)

Johnson noted, however, that the AMO standards – which are determined by student performance on the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests – are being revised, something that’s reflected in the math score. The overall math AMO benchmark was set at 61, and while Rappahannock achieved that mark, both Lesinski and Johnson admit it was lower than expected.

Johnson said she believes the score is due to the revised, and consequently much harder, math SOL test which was instituted earlier this year. “This was a new, more rigorous math SOL,” Johnson said. “We’ll catch up to it, though.”

Boone pointed out that many school districts had difficulty making the new math objective, which is due to be adjusted by the state education department, along with the reading scores.

“Math has to be a focal point for us,” Boone continued. “But we need to put that critical lens on reading, too.”

Boone said he believes the school’s “rigorous curriculum” helps prepare students to do well on the SOLs. He also said that the school recently implemented a pre-AP curriculum for students in grades six through 10, in an effort to ensure students are thoroughly prepared to meet the new standards.

Included in the report card are statistics on school safety, many of which have decreased in Rappahannock County Public Schools during the last two years. In particular, offense against staff and offenses of disruptive or disorderly behavior have both dropped dramatically. Offenses against other students, however, have risen since last year.

Boone says this is a byproduct of the school division redefining and reclassifying “bullying” and other similar offenses.

“It was a targeted effort to define exactly what ‘bullying’ means in our schools,” Boone said. “Two years ago, things that may have been written off as ‘horseplay’ now fall under a different category. [The statistics] reflect our efforts to accurately report cases of bullying.”