Failing grades

Published 9:31 pm Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Suffolk principals seek answers about SOL results

Principals at Suffolk’s three public high schools say they will analyze results question-by-question and implement changes after considerably fewer students met math Standards of Learning benchmarks than the state average.

Even the principal of Nansemond River, which outperformed its two counterparts and is expected to remain fully accredited, predicts some soul searching.

“I wish we had done better,” Thomas McLemore said. “We’re going to analyze everything and try to figure out what happened, and just refocus on what we need to do.”

Click here to download the full Excel document for the full SOL results for the state.

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McLemore said that specific actions would be determined once a “school leadership team” of teachers and administrators analyzes results to identify weak areas.

Some action has already been taken. “I have made some staff changes in terms of what (classes) teachers are teaching next year,” McLemore said.

According to official results released by the Virginia Department of Education Tuesday, Suffolk’s division-wide pass rates for Algebra I were 63 percent in 2011-2012 and 92 percent in 2010-2011, against 75 percent and 90 percent, respectively, statewide.

The Suffolk pass rate for Algebra II was 43 percent in 2011-2012 and 77 percent in 2010-2011, down sharply on the respective state figures of 69 percent and 91 percent.

For Geometry, 60 percent of Suffolk students passed this past year and 73 percent in 2010-2011, against 74 percent and 87 percent, respectively, statewide.

Of Suffolk’s three public high schools, King’s Fork passed the slimmest percentage of students in math, though it scored one percent higher than Lakeland in Geometry.

King’s Fork is also grappling with a high rate of student dropouts, and principal Suzanne Rice invited community leaders to a roundtable discussion Tuesday, following up an earlier session in April, to help find a solution.

Speaking to the dropout problem, but also of relevance to SOLs, Rice said that the lack of work ethic among students is “our biggest hurdle.”

“We’re in that era of ‘I want it now, and I don’t want to work for it,’” she said.

Attempting to fix the problem, she said, students identified by teachers as lacking motivation are sequestered in 20-minute “make-up” sessions once every two weeks.

Once they finish their work, they can do what they want for the remaining time, she said, such as listen to an iPod or read a novel.

This year’s math SOL was assessed via a new computer-based format requiring stronger critical-thinking and technology skills than before.

Much has been said at School Board meetings about how students with lower computer literacy levels would cope.

But Rice said, “I don’t believe the technology enhancement was the reason that they did poor; I think it was the actual rigor. People who don’t have access to technology still have access to playing games. We think they have a pretty good understanding of technology and the use of technology. The way we need to switch gears now is to improve the rigor.”

Rather than memorize answers and spit them out, she said, students need to understand the process, and that’s where teaching can be improved.

Lakeland principal Thomas Whitley said the school needs to “go back to the drawing board and look at the process” of how to improve instruction.

“I understand that this is unacceptable,” he said. “We have very high expectations” for students, and the math scores “are not reflective of what we’re capable of.”

He said the technology aspect of the new math assessment “certainly has some bearing, but not a great deal; that’s a small component. I think the biggest concern is, this test focuses on high-order thinking … it moves away from the multiple-choice concept.”

He vowed that the school would probe every aspect of student and teacher performance “and get to the root of the problem.”

In other subjects, Lakeland High and, especially, King’s Fork High achieved considerable improvements this year in World History II, while King’s Fork also markedly improved World History I scores.

The news for most other subjects was also less dire — math was the standout concern.

McLemore said that at Nansemond River this past school year, students were exempted from exams once they had passed SOLs, “as a motivation to those kids.”

“We take a great deal of pride in trying to do the best we possibly can, because it affects our school,” he said.

“I don’t want to have to take my blue sign down. I really don’t.”