Improving schools’ performance on standardized tests and fixing a “broken” grading system are among Matt Haas’ top priorities as superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools.
At a meeting of the county School Board on Thursday, Haas shared his takeaways from a community engagement campaign that he undertook during his first 100 days on the job.
After taking the position July 1, Haas — previously deputy superintendent — began a countywide listening tour to gain a new perspective on the division.
Haas said that tour attracted a total of more than 400 staff parents and community members over 16 listening sessions. The school division also collected nearly 1,500 responses to an online survey this fall.
“With regard to bright spots shared during the listening tour, I heard that we have passionate and high-quality teachers; our schools provide an academic learning challenge; and we have welcoming school communities and positive school climate,” Haas said. “When it comes to challenges, I heard that we need to truly focus on and increase student engagement.”
Haas said he was unable to strongly correlate any of the themes from the listening tour conversations to the assessment of student work.
“I found it interesting … because [testing and grading] is at the center of so much of what we do in schools,” he said. “If we do not get grading and assessment right, all the other good work our teachers are doing to improve student learning will fail.”
During the 2017-18 school year, staff conducted a study of grading practices in the division that included a survey of nearly all teachers in grades 4 through 12.
“None of the practices reported approach consistency,” Haas said. “It’s not the fault of our teachers; the problem is the system.”
As an example, Haas noted that 22 percent of teachers reported that they almost always deduct points for late work and 23 percent reported that they never did so.
Haas said the schools will continue to talk to teachers and the community to develop consistent and transparent guidelines for grading. He said he hopes Albemarle will ultimately scrap 100-point grading scales in favor of a five-point scale.
In his speech, Haas said the schools are committed to exceeding state standards for proficiency and closing achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests.
In the 2017-18 school year, 76 percent of Albemarle County students passed the Standards of Learning test for math and 79 percent passed the reading SOL test. Ten years earlier, the division’s pass rates on both tests were above 90 percent.
SOL pass rates have been lower statewide since the Virginia Department of Education introduced more rigorous assessments in 2012. But this year, Albemarle’s pass rates on Standards of Learning exams for math, history and science were slightly below state averages.
“When we were doing well with the SOL assessments, they were important to us, and then we drifted, and we say they are not,” Haas said. “Let’s get back on course. Let us not send a mixed message to our educators, often stating that the tests do not matter, when in fact, the tests suddenly matter when a school is in accreditation jeopardy.”
Virginia’s new accreditation standards factor in schools’ progress in closing achievement gaps in English and mathematics. This year, Greer Elementary School was accredited with conditions due to low SOL pass rates among African-American students and students with disabilities.
Albemarle County’s overall pass rates for African American and Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities have consistently trailed state averages.
“We have a marginalized population of students that is not accessing our full curriculum of opportunities and attaining success as well as they should, and it is not their problem. It is our problem, the system’s problem,” Haas said.
The division should administer its own common assessments at the midpoint of each school year, “to know whether our students are learning or not and so that schools can comparatively benchmark with each other,” he said.
Haas also hopes to overhaul the county’s teacher evaluation system, and create a way for students to provide feedback on their teachers’ practices.
“[Students] are our primary customers, and we do a disservice to both students and teachers when we do not provide adequate feedback opportunities,” he said.
The division should set goals for recruiting and retaining a more diverse teaching staff, he said.
Eighty-nine percent of Albemarle’s teachers are white, compared with 65 percent of the current student population. The division is about 300 teachers of color short of having a teaching staff that is demographically similar to its student body, Haas said.
“We need to set a target for diversity hires and work toward it,” he said. “This is an oversimplification, but if we hired 25 teachers each year, it would take eight to ten years to [get] a teacher force that more closely represents our student population. I wish we had started that 10 years ago.”
Haas will receive a base salary of $186,000 this school year. His contract also includes a 10 percent annuity and a monthly automobile allowance of $1,050.