Does Elementary School Cheating Make the Middle Schools Look Worse?

In terms of the 2017 average SOL pass rates, Richmond had the second worst schools in Virginia.  In that morass of awfulness, the middle schools stood out: Their performance was even worse than awful.  Indeed, in 2017 MLK had the worst SOL performance in the state.

Some time back I asked the formidable Carol Wolf why the Richmond scores fall into a pit between the fifth and sixth grades.  She said the teachers tell her the elementary schools are cheating. 

Now we hear that there has been an institutional cheating program at Richmond’s Carver Elementary School.  And the data suggest that other elementary schools have been doing the same thing, especially as to the disabled students. 

The SOL data by grade are consistent with this picture. 

Let’s start with the 2017 Reading pass rates.


In the elementary grades, we see Richmond’s abled students scoring some fifteen or more points below their peers statewide while the disabled students were closing in on the state average for disabled students.  The Richmond pass rates, especially those of the disabled students, plummeted in middle school while the statewide numbers dropped much less.


Statewide, as in this case, the pass rates for disabled students have been running about thirty points below the rates for abled students.  At Carver and elsewhere, we have seen some disabled pass rates near, and sometimes better than, the state average non-disabled rates.

If, as seems probable, Carver’s and some other schools’ numbers are bogus, we would expect the pass rates of the affected students to have tumbled when those students entered the sixth grade and received unenhanced scores.  The data here are consistent with that picture, with, as expected, a larger drop for the disabled population.

Indeed, these data suggest a whole lot of score boosting in Richmond’s elementary schools.

The math data paint much the same picture.  Notice, also, the score decreases continuing into the seventh grade, both in Richmond and in the statewide data.



The 2016 data tell much the same story.





One departure here from the simple view: Richmond’s non-disabled math scores that year dropped more than the disabled.  Perhaps there is another factor at work on the math testing.

In sum, we can view these data as one more reason to think Carol was right: It looks like they’re cheating in (at least some of) Richmond’s elementary schools.

BTW:  VDOE has the data to nail this issue.  If students entering middle school from some elementary schools show large score decreases while students from others do not, VDOE can identify the elementary schools that may be inflating their pass rates. 

Silly me.  Of course VDOE has not performed, and will not perform, that analysis.  Their manifest interest is in high scores and increased graduation rates, not in education.

That leaves it up to our new Superintendent.  He also has the data and he has an interest in not having a cheating scandal on his watch.  We’ll see whether he follows up.

Carver By the Numbers

The estimable Jim Bacon noticed that the disabled students at Carver outscored their abled peers on the reading tests in 2017.  He said:

While Carver students as a whole out-performed their peers in Richmond schools and state schools, those classified as disabled out-performed their peers by mind-blowing margins. Either Carver has cracked the code on teaching disabled students or… it has been aggressively manipulating test results.

A deeper dive into the numbers suggests that Bacon is being too kind by suggesting that “crack[ing] the code” might be an alternative.

First a quick bit of history:

And a short timeline:


Turning to the data, here are the 3d grade reading pass rates by year for Carver, Richmond, and the state.  “Y” indicates disabled; “N” indicates not disabled.


The state data, blue, show the statewide drop with the new tests in 2013.  Throughout, the disabled students, the red points, generally underperformed their more abled peers, the yellow points, by about thirty points on the new tests.

The yellow lines are Richmond.  The disabled performance before 2013 reflects their cheating on the VGLA tests.  Since then, Richmond’s disabled students have generally scored below the state average by up to ten points while their more abled peers have been low by about fifteen. 

(In light of Richmond’s overall lousy performance, we can wonder whether those disabled numbers are artificially boosted.  But that is a question for another day.)

Then we have Carver, the green lines.  There is some year-to-year variation, as can be expected from a smaller population.  The non-disabled scores were low before the new principal and have been stratospheric since. 

The scores of the disabled Carver students have been spectacular.  Before 2013, it looks like Carver was abusing the VGLA, along with too many other Richmond schools.  The disabled scores plummeted in ‘13, with the abolition of the VGLA.

After the arrival of the new principal in 2012, Carver’s disabled students often outscored the non-disabled state averages and, in 2015, outscored even the non-disabled Carver students.

Friar Occam would tell us to select the simple explanation: Those Carver scores were “aggressively manipulated.”  That is, they were cheating at Carver, wholesale, both before and after 2012.

Next, fourth grade reading:


The missing Carver disabled datum for 2013 probably represents a population small enough to trigger the VDOE suppression rules.  Otherwise, these data tell the same story as the third grade numbers (with a notable higher score by the disabled population in 2017).

Fifth grade reading:


These data are a variation on the same theme, but with the stratospheric Carver scores persisting into 2017.

Turning to the math tests:




Note the missing Carver data for 2012.

There are some interesting details here, notably the lower 2017 pass rates in some cases.  Jim Bacon posits “that something changed in the way the SOL tests were administered to make manipulation more difficult.”

The Big Picture is clear, however, imho: The people running Carver have been cheating, prodigiously.  Whatever their technique (I’m hearing tales they posted the answers on the blackboard), they have obtained spectacular pass rates for the non-disabled students and have achieved even better than equal opportunity score boosts among the disabled population. 

I don’t think we need to wait for the retesting for confirmation.  I think that jail would be too good for the staff at Carver.  Stocks for the Carver staff and a bushel of tomatoes for each Carver parent would be a good start.

Cheating at Carver?

The recent numbers at Carver have been spectacular. 

For reference, here they are, along with a bit of history:








When I asked our former Superintendent whether they were cheating at Carver, he ducked

When Carol Wolf asked the new Superintendent, he asked VDOE.  Here is the (initial) result. 

Message from the Superintendent

Dear RPS Community,

We recently received information about potential irregularities with SOL testing procedures at Carver Elementary and consulted the Virginia State Department of Education (VDOE) regarding next steps.  Based on their initial exploration, it is clear that, in some instances, standardized procedures for testing were not followed.  

In alignment with the VDOE’s conclusions, we believe it is in the best interest of our students for them to re-test under proper protocols.  While we understand the burden this places on students and staff, having accurate student performance data allows us to better support our students and our educators.  We are working closely with the Carver administration and staff to communicate with parents and answer their questions and concerns.

I take testing integrity extremely seriously.  We have extraordinary students and they deserve the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities without question. If you have a concern about testing protocols at any other RPS school, you can anonymously share information by calling RPS at (804) 780-7906 or the VDOE at (804) 225-2102.

Jason Kamras
RPS Superintendent

VDOE says:

The Virginia Department of Education is investigating reported irregularities in the administration of Standards of Learning tests at Carver Elementary. The investigation is being conducted at the request of Richmond Public Schools. VDOE is also providing guidance on the retesting of students.

Carol points out that a number of other folks have raised questions about those remarkable SOL pass rates.  As well, the “irregularities” here involve the adults, not the kids.

Let’s hope the details will soon follow.

Truant Students; Lawless School Board; Feckless Board of Education

The always kind Clerk of the School Board sent me the list of unexcused absences for the 2016-17 school year.  That list shows the number of unexcused absences for each of 27,221 students.

CAVEAT:  VDOE reports a Fall membership at RPS of 24,868 that year.  Perhaps the 2,353 difference reflects turnover during the school year; perhaps there is a problem somewhere in these datasets.  In any case, these are their numbers.  I’ll go with the 27,221 total, given that I have absence numbers for that many students.

Here, to start, is the distribution:


OOPS:  An alert reader noticed that the axis labels were reversed on this graph in the original post.  This is the corrected graph.

While I’m at it, here is that graph abbreviated to show only the distribution for 40 or more absences:


Those numbers range from 5927 students with no unexcused absences to the one Big Winner with 137.  (That is one hundred thirty-seven; it is not a typo.)

At the other end of the scale, only 21.8% of Richmond students had no unexcused absences.  Said otherwise: 78.2% had one or more unexcused absences.

Or, for a more detailed picture:



The “7 or more” is a magic category.  Va. Code § 22.1-258 requires the following:

  • Any absence: Notify parents; obtain explanation;
  • 5 absences: Attendance plan;
  • 6 absences: Conference with parents; and
  • 7 absences: Prosecute parents or file CHINS petition.

These actions are not optional: The statute says “shall” throughout.

In 2017, Richmond had 7,234 students with seven or more unexcused absences; they brought 173 prosecutions and filed 60 CHINS petitions.  That’s a 3.22% compliance with the law.  Viewed otherwise, it’s a 96.8% rate of violation by our School Board.

The flagrant violations of 2017 are part of a history of flagrant violations:


Our Board of “Education,” which has the duty to enforce § 22.1-258, has done nothing about this ongoing defiance of state law.

In the meantime, Richmond had the third lowest reading pass rate and the second lowest math pass rate in the state in 2017.

Your tax dollars at “work.”

Turnover at Westover Hills

The story about Westover Hills in the Times-Dispatch suggests that Virginia Loving has been Principal there since 2011.

The SOL performance there since 2011 has not been encouraging:



Note: The Reading scores dropped statewide with the new tests in 2013; math showed a similar effect with the new tests in 2012.

RPS has just posted a job listing: “Principal – Westover Hills Elementary – 2018-2019 School Year.”  The start date is July 1.

I hear the party line is that Loving is “retiring.”

Where Have All the Dollars Gone?

On the 2017 data (the latest available from VDOE), Richmond spent $2,578 per student more than the average Virginia division (data are disbursements, not including facilities, debt service, and reserves). 


Multiply that excess by the 22,916.17 students (Don’t ask me where 0.17 students come from.) and you get an excess expenditure of $59.1 million.

Other data on the VDOE Web site can offer clues as to where that money is (or is not) going.

To start: If Richmond were paying its teachers more than average, that could suggest a healthy purpose for some of the excess money.  As to those salaries, VDOE’s Table 19 gives us the following:


Hmmm.  Richmond is paying its average teacher $7,207 less than the division average.  That number times our 2,274.53 teachers (Looks like teachers also come in fractions.) tells us Richmond is saving $16.4 million per year from those lower salaries.

Versus the average, Richmond is spending that $16.4 million somewhere, but not on teachers, so let’s add the counterproductive salary saving to the $59.1 million excess expenditure.  That gives a total of $75.5 million per year.


Next, the number of teachers.  If Richmond had extra teachers per pupil, the cost of those teachers could explain part of this $75 million.

VDOE’s Table 17 gives us the data:


A little arithmetic tells us that, vs. the division average, Richmond is has an extra 278 teachers.


At an average salary of $50,567, Richmond is paying $14.1 million per year for those extra teachers.

It’s not clear that smaller classes produce better learning.  But Richmond seems to be trying, so let’s’ offset that $14.1 million against the overspending:


We often hear that special education and poverty are major contributors to Richmond’s higher costs.  It is difficult to come by data to quantify that.  The closest I have come is SchoolDataDirect, the now defunct Standard & Poors data service that was supported by the Gates Foundation.

S&P calculated adjustments to spending on core operating activities to account for poverty, special education, and geographic factors.  On the 2006 data, here are their numbers:

The difference in adjustments is -6%; that is, on those (old) data, Richmond schools were 6% less expensive than average (in terms of “core” spending) because of those three factors.

Based on that counter-intuitive result and the absence of current data, let’s pass on those factors.

One final item: Richmond’s excess expenditure for O&M is $77 per student, a total of $ 1.7 million.  If all that were justified (and given the sorry state of our old school buildings, Richmond surely could justify a much larger O&M expenditure), Richmond would still have been spending an extra $59.7 million on something.


Richmond’s disbursement total (as with all the numbers above, not counting facilities, or contingency reserves) was $344.2 million.  (That’s right, just over a third of a BILLION dollars!)  The $59.7 million excess was 17.3% of that total.

What we got for that money was the third lowest reading pass rate and the second lowest math pass rate in the state.

Until RPS can explain where all the money is going and what they are going to do to redirect it to a useful purpose, there is no reason at all to increase the school budget.  To the contrary, these data make a case for cutting the RPS budget by at least $59.7 million.

Spending ≠ Learning

We have seen that Richmond spends a lot more money per student than either the division average or its peer jurisdictions.  For that extra money, Richmond gets vastly inferior performance; indeed it is in a race for lowest SOL pass rates in the state.

To begin examining those data in more detail, here are the 2017 disbursements (not including facilities, debt service, and reserves) per student for Richmond, the peers, and the division average (rounded to the nearest dollar).


And here are the totals for just the day school operations.


Turning to the categories in the VDOE data, we see:


As we might expect, the instruction budget is the major item here.  If we just look at the other categories, we see:


Or, in terms of the differences from the division averages:


From these data, we can’t tell where those funds are going in the instruction category but we know that we aren’t getting any return for the money.  The (very) large Pre-K expenditure (funded in some part by federal Head Start money) does not look to be producing results either, at least not in the overall sense.

The food expenditure makes sense in light of Richmond’s relatively large proportion of free and reduced lunches (albeit the poverty rate in Richmond does not begin to explain the low pass rates).  The state data don’t tell us where the “other” educational expenses are going.

Richmond is grossly violating the state law that requires it to deal with truancy; their puny (and lawless) effort as to attendance cannot explain the relatively large expenditure for Attendance and Health.

Our new Superintendent has asked the Council of the Great City Schools to audit the Richmond budget.  Let’s hope that effort provides a more detailed – and more helpful – look at how our tax money is being squandered on these awful schools.

Money Won’t Buy You Learning

OOPS!  A kind reader points out I messed up the totals in this post.  The State spreadsheet has a column for the day school total and I included that in the grand total, double counting the day school total.

Sigh.  Corrected version below:


Now that VDOE has posted the division disbursements for 2017, we can juxtapose those data with the 2017 SOL scores.

For purposes of this exercise, I’ve left out the amounts for facilities, debt service, and reserves because of the wide variation of those numbers between divisions.  The numbers below, then, are the totals for the regular day school operations plus food services, summer school, adult education, pre-K, and “other” educational programs.

To start, here are the reading pass rates v. those disbursements.


The fitted line might suggest that pass rates decrease with increasing disbursements but the 1.1% R-squared value tells us those variables are very slightly correlated.

Richmond is the gold square on the graph.  The red diamonds are peer jurisdictions, from the left Hampton, Newport News, and Norfolk.  Charles City is green; Lynchburg is blue.

The average disbursement is $12,216.  The average reading pass rate, 77.4.  Richmond spent an extra $2,804 per student for an SOL return 19.3 points below the state average.

Here are the graphs for the other four subjects:





And here are averages of the five.


These other correlations are larger, up to the 6.29% in math, which is an R of 0.251.  From eyeballing the graphs, it looks like it’s driven by that flock of divisions in the upper left that gets better than average pass rates and spends less money than average.

And, as to Richmond, the result is clear: We’re spending a lot more money than average and we are competing for the lowest pass rates in the state.

Let’s hope the upcoming audit by the Council of the Great City Schools will tell us where all that money is going in Richmond and why it gets us such awful results.

Lawless Disfunction

The RT-D this morning reports that RPS has never implemented a 2012 policy that students with more than six unexcused absences per nine weeks or ten per semester be denied credit for the class(es) missed.

Aside from the absurdity of a policy that the School Board adopted but does not enforce, this – in conjunction with other public information – tells us at least five things about our awful school system and our dysfunctional school board:

1.  Our School Board Deliberately Violates State Law.

Virginia law requires the Superintendent to prosecute the parents or file a CHINS petition against the student after the seventh unexcused absence in any year.

RPS has long been violating that law wholesale.  On the most recent data (2016) RPS filed 201 prosecutions and 25 CHINS petitions for a total of 226, which was 3.1% of the 7,288 court cases required that year by the statute.

2.  The Board of “Education” Has Been Ignoring Richmond’s Violations

The State Board of Education is required by law to enforce the statute Richmond has been so flagrantly violating.  That Board has utterly failed to do so.

3.  The Policy Is Stupid and Counterproductive

If RPS and the courts were doing their jobs, no student would collect the ten unexcused absences that could trigger the policy.  Indeed, the statute requires interventions long before the seventh absence:

  • Contact the parents after any unexcused absence;
  • Develop an attendance plan after the fifth absence; and
  • Schedule a conference with the parents after the sixth absence.

While ignoring the statutory requirements, Richmond adopted this silly policy that would (if enforced) deny course credit as punishment of students whose behavior had demonstrated that they did not care about course credit.

4.  The Board Is (And Has Been) a Fraud

A policy that is not enforced – at all – is not a policy.  It is mendacious showboating.  The current School Board confirms that the policy is a fake by suspending the policy.

5.  Our Current Board Is Dysfunctional

Our School Board is fighting a pitched battle with City Council about funding new schools rather than focusing its energy on repairing the educational failures of one of the worst school systems in the state.  The Board concentrates on this secondary issue, of course, because the buildings are a problem even it can understand.  Meanwhile, the Board continues to abuse the children in its charge by failing to fix its dysfunctional school system.

Your Government at “Work”

Mark A. Olinger, Director
Department of Planning and Development Review
City of Richmond

Mr. Olinger,

I have your notice of the public hearing at City Hall at 1:30 PM on Monday, May 7 regarding a proposed encroachment into the Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Area at 3005 Riverside Drive.

I am interested to notice:

  • The hearing is scheduled at City Hall, where the parking is limited and expensive, rather than in the affected neighborhood, where the parking generally is abundant and free;
  • The hearing is scheduled near midday on a work day, when many of my neighbors will be at work helping to fund your agency, rather than in the evening, when it would be convenient for ‘most any interested person;
  • The application for the exception is available during business hours at City Hall, where it will be decidedly inconvenient to view, rather than on the Web, where it could be read at any time with a click of the mouse; and
  • The Notice arrived in my mailbox a mere nine days — five work days — before the hearing.

This Notice is fully consistent with Richmond’s reputation for treating its citizens with a mixture of obnoxious arrogance and thoughtless disdain.  Whatever we are paying you, any excess over 25 cents a decade is too much.

With kindest regards,

John Butcher


Note added April 29:

Ms. Penelope points out that the last sentence above (re Mr. Olinger’s salary) was snarky and inappropriate.  She is right, as usual.  I retract that sentence and apologize to Mr. Olinger.

It remains, however, that our City went to some trouble to mail a notice (1) advising us we can comment on the project and (2) telling us they are making it as inconvenient as possible to comment on the project.

This stands in contrast to the notice on the Planning and Development home page:


Here we see that, at least as to building permits, the City:

  •     Opens early, to accommodate contractors and other customers;
  •      Provides free parking;
  •      Posts status reports on the Web; and
  •      Accepts submittals (only) in electronic form.

We are left to wonder why the City treats permit applicants with so much more care than it does mere taxpayers.