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City schools split on accreditation

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Two Martinsville schools received full accreditation for the 2013-14 school year and two did not, according to data released Friday by the Virginia Department of Education (DOE).

Martinsville Middle School and Patrick Henry Elementary School received full accreditation, according to a release from the school system, while Martinsville High School was accredited with a warning in math and Albert Harris Elementary School was accredited with warnings in English and math.

The accreditation ratings are based on results of the spring 2013 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

According to a release from the DOE, new, more rigorous reading, writing and science SOL tests were administered last school year, and it was the second year of math tests that were more challenging .

“We knew the new tests would be much more challenging,” said Martinsville schools Superintendent Pam Heath. “The setback in our scores this year mirrors the results of schools across the state. That is not an excuse; it means we have more work to do to ensure that all of our students are successful.”

The state release said that 93 percent of Virginia’s 1,828 public schools were rated as fully accredited for 2012-13, but that number dropped to 77 percent (1,413 schools) for 2013-14.

Heath added that even with an increased benchmark for standards of reading and writing, Martinsville High School exceeded the standards for English, which ran contrary to statewide trends.

Albert Harris, meanwhile, exceeded benchmarks in history and science despite an increase in the required third grade passing standard from 50 to 70 percent, but passing rates dropped this year to 42 percent in English and 43 percent in math, leading to its designation as a Priority school.

As a result of that designation, the school division began participating in August in an Early Reading Specialist Grant to fund a second reading specialist to assist students at the school, according to Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Angilee Downing. Also, students receive an extra 30 minutes of reading instruction per day, and the school receives additional help monitoring student progress.

Instructional coaches funded by federal Title I grants and The Harvest Foundation visit administrators and teachers monthly to focus on development of 21st century skills and the application of learning. Also, a division-level math specialist is working on math instruction at all schools.

Across the division, Heath said, “We are really making a shift in how we approach teaching and learning. There’s a push for more critical thinking. Our state superintendent, Patricia Wright, has said these new tests are very different from the traditional multiple-choice tests we’ve seen in the past. And that is certainly the case. They’re not just knowledge-based anymore.”

The move from primarily knowledge-based testing to project-based and application-based testing on the SOLs was a reason for Martinsville High School’s push for renovations, including the renovated science labs, according to Heath.

It also is the reason the city school board requested a budget allocation from the city council that included a teacher salary increase.

“It’s hard to recruit math teachers” because of the high demand, Heath said. “Thanks to that increase, we were able to staff the high school with highly qualified, fully certified math teachers this year.”

Across the school division, Downing said, an emphasis is being placed on the real-world application of knowledge.

“That’s why we’re moving in the direction we are this year,” she said, “with project-based learning, product-oriented learning and an emphasis on 21st century skills. We’re focusing on what the students are doing and producing. That’s what we hear from our business partners — what can students do with what they have learned?”

“Students need these higher-level skills not just for the test, but for success in their careers and in life,” she added.

Teachers went through intense workshops this summer to learn how to bring project-based learning into the classroom, modeled on the successful High Tech High in San Diego, the release said. Students will demonstrate the results of this new initiative when the school division holds its first exhibition of student work Nov. 4.

“We have excellent teachers and exceptionally capable students,” Heath said. “This is a temporary setback as we continue to fine-tune our instruction. Our teachers and students are working extremely hard, and this set of test scores simply represents a snapshot of one point in time.”


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