From left: Assistant Superintendent Bernard Hairston and School Board members Kate Acuff and Jason Buyaki review data that will be included in Albemarle County Public Schools' State of the Division report. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

The Albemarle County School Board on Thursday took a deep dive into student achievement data at its annual State of the Division work session.

The county’s public schools are fully accredited for the 2017-18 academic year, but the division’s pass rates on Standards of Learning exams for math, history and science were slightly below state averages.

SOL pass rates for economically disadvantaged students — 55 percent for reading and 54 percent for math — also trailed state averages, as did the pass rates for black and Hispanic students.

“When you take a look at our data, our white students are passing at an 80 percent rate, while our African-American and Hispanic students are around 60 percent,” said Patrick McLaughlin, the division’s chief of strategic planning. “That has really not shifted in the past three years.”

Virginia’s SOL accreditation benchmarks for individual schools are 75 percent passing in math and reading and 70 percent for other subjects.

School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff said that, despite a heightened focus on equity in recent years, the division is “still way below where we need to be.”

“I’m sure we can do better. I’m interested in where we can do better,” Acuff said. “Where are the points along a student’s 13 years in school where we can intervene most effectively?”

The school division’s Equity Dashboard — a table of student data updated each year — shows persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities in the division’s program for gifted students.

More than 1 in 9 white students in the division are identified as gifted, compared with 1 in 55 black students and 1 in 44 Hispanic students. Fewer than 100 of Albemarle’s 4,419 economically disadvantaged students were identified as gifted, according to the Equity Dashboard.

“Our gifted identification system is totally broken,” School Board member Steve Koleszar said. “There is obviously something wrong with that process.”

Albemarle schools can begin identifying gifted students as early as kindergarten, although most are assessed in second or third grade. Acuff said she had concerns about categorizing gifted students in their first years of school.

“Kids come differently equipped to start the first day of school,” she said. “A lot of kids are already behind when they show up.”

Ten percent of Albemarle’s students are classified as English language learners, but these students make up fewer than 2 percent of the division’s gifted program.

Maureen Jensen, gifted services facilitator for the county schools, said the system’s screening test for gifted services includes a non-verbal portion.

“We try to not have that assessment [function] as the gatekeeper,” she said.

Jensen said many parents nominate their children for gifted services because they feel that their school’s mainstream classes aren’t challenging enough.

“The gifted-resource teacher is like the special-education teacher — [someone] who pushes into the classroom to provide something different,” she said.

Jensen said the school division’s current goal is for fewer students to be identified for these services.

“Let’s raise the level of rigor in the classroom first and then see what services are needed,” she said.

The Equity Dashboard shows racial disparities in student discipline, as well. More than 7 percent of Albemarle’s black students received out-of-school suspensions in the 2017-18 academic year, compared with fewer than 3 percent of white students. The total number of out-of-school suspensions was about 15 percent lower than in the previous year.

Statewide, black students were suspended at rates 4.5 times higher than Hispanic and white students, according to a new report by the Legal Aid Justice Center.

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Josh Mandell

osh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.

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