The Vinton Messenger

Special diplomas not counted in federal graduation data

VINTON–The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released federal accountability data on school systems and individual schools on September 17, 2013. Some of the released data is puzzling. Some schools that exceeded required benchmark pass rates don’t meet federal standards.

Public schools in Virginia have two accountability systems to satisfy—state and federal– both based on Standards of Learning  tests and a graduation rate index on the high school level.

Schools are “accredited” at the state level depending upon whether or not they meet set pass rates in math, English, social studies, and science on the SOL subject area tests.

At the federal level, schools meet federal guidelines by reaching Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO’s) based on reading and math scores and also a graduation index. The system was set up to reduce gaps between different student subgroups in reading and math.

Student populations are divided into subgroups based on race, socioeconomic, language and disability criteria.  Each subgroup has a target (benchmark) pass rate, which increases each year, that the subgroup must reach for a school to meet AMO. Students with disabilities, those who are economically disadvantaged, and English Language Learners make up Gap Group 1.

These AMO’s replace the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals set by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which were in effect until the state obtained waivers from those requirements in 2012.

In choosing to ask for the waiver from NCLB, Virginia agreed to designate the lowest performing 5% of Title I schools as “Priority” Schools and another 10% as “Focus” schools. (Federal Title I funds are granted to schools with high numbers of low income students.)

Theoretically by 2018, all subgroups will have pass rates of 73 in math and 78 in reading. Initially, schools could meet the AMO by meeting benchmarks, reducing the previous year’s fail rates by 10 percent, or by using a 3-year average of pass rates.

According to the VDOE, schools now must meet benchmarks, score within 5 percent of the previous year’s score, or reduce last year’s fail rate by 10 percent. In some instances, they can still use the three year average, but not if they met the benchmark the previous year.

Sometimes lower-scoring schools make AMO, while schools with higher school-wide pass rates but subgroups with lower scores, don’t.

The system is not only confusing, but very frustrating to faculty and students who have diligently labored throughout the year to master the SOL’s.

Perhaps the most frustrating calculation for high schools is the Federal Graduation Indicator. Three high schools in Roanoke County—William Byrd, Glenvar, and Northside—must complete improvement plans because of their Federal Graduation Indicators (FGI).

At the state level of accreditation, all diplomas and certificates of completion are counted.

Only Standard and Advanced diplomas are counted in the federal data, which means that special education students who have Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) developed by teams made up of parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists and who work toward “IEP” or “Modified Standard” diplomas do not have their achievements counted in the federal data. It’s as if they dropped out of school. GED diplomas do not count either—those students are also treated essentially as drop-outs in the federal system.

Ben Williams, the Associate Director of Testing and Remediation for Roanoke County Schools, says that students with disabilities have an “artificially low graduation rate that impacts other subgroups as well.”

In viewing the data available online at, William Byrd High School (WBHS), Glenvar High School (GHS), and Northside High School (NHS) all received a “No” from the U.S. Department of Education on “Federal Graduation Indicator.”  This data is based on graduation rates in June 2012.

WBHS received its rating because Students with Disabilities within Gap Group 1 missed the FGI, because their modified diplomas and GED diplomas were not accepted by the federal DOE. The “economically disadvantaged” subgroup did meet the FGI because of their six year average.

Glenvar also had a “No” and will be on an improvement plan because of the FGI of their economically disadvantaged population within Gap Group 1.

According Williams, “Northside missed the FGI in Gap Group I (74 students of which 26 were students with disabilities). However they also would not have met the Federal Accountability requirements because they did not exceed their previous year’s performance in math with the Hispanic and students with disabilities subgroups (although both groups met the Annual Measurable Objective target).”

It gets more confusing. Williams says that Cave Spring High School actually “just squeaked by,” with very small subgroups in Gap Group 1. Hidden Valley met the requirement for students with disabilities because they reduced the number of students not earning a standard or advanced studies diploma by 10% from the previous year.

In fact, in examining the data from the entire state and surrounding school divisions, out of approximately 310 high schools in the state, about 180 did not meet the FGI and will be on improvement plans.

Liberty High School and Staunton River High School in Bedford County are on the plans, as are James River High School, Lord Botetourt High School, Franklin County High School, Floyd County, Patrick County, E.C. Glass and Heritage High Schools in Lynchburg, and Auburn, Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and Eastern Montgomery High Schools in Montgomery County. Patrick Henry in Roanoke City is on an improvement plan while William Fleming High School is identified as a “priority” school.

The VDOE website indicates that there are 1,828 schools in Virginia. Four hundred fifty-nine are going to be on improvement plans for one reason or another. Forty-one percent of the total met all of the federal objectives.

Worth noting is that all Roanoke County schools, including the three high schools who must develop improvement plans due to the Federal Graduation Indicator were fully accredited by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Williams says that from the viewpoint of the school system, WBHS had a “very good year. In fact, their overall math results went up by 15 percentage points from last year.”

The “improvement plan” at WBHS will involve planning and tracking student progress in the subgroups, which they have been doing for years, and making sure students “earn the highest diploma possible.”

“When an IEP team determines the most appropriate diploma for the student, we cannot and do not take a FGI into account,” said Williams. “We just make sure we make the best decision for the child.”

Because they are not a Title 1 school, there most likely won’t be long-term sanctions from not meeting the FGI.

“Testing is important, but we are not driven by testing,” said Dr. Richard Turner, principal at WBHS.  “I feel our students receive a well rounded education here at Byrd (and in Roanoke County as a whole) with strong CTE [Career and Technical Education], Arts and other electives to prepare our students for further education, employment and life.”