Satellite Town Meeting: High Standards & Accountability

June 14, 2001

Community Update & the Satellite Town Meeting are produced by the US Department of Education Office of Intergovernmental & Interagency Affairs (OIIA) For more information visit

Below is an article from the newsletter, “Community Update,”

featuring Tidewater Park Elementary School, which has achieved

impressive gains in student performance. Sylvia Spratley,

principal of the Norfolk, Virginia, school, will be among the

guests on the Town Meeting Tuesday night, June 19, 8:00 to

9:00 PM (ET).

Achieving High: A Virginia School Raises Expectations & Proves Every Child Can Succeed

Before summer recess begins, Tidewater Park Elementary School will be getting back test scores that chart how well its students are measuring up against state standards. Last year, 75% of students in the Norfolk, Virginia, school passed every subject area on the state exam — an impressive leap when just two years prior not a single 5th-grader passed the history or science portion of the test.

“The first year the test scores came out, they were supposed to be baseline data. But everywhere we went we were haunted by those scores,” recalls Tidewater Park’s principal Sylvia Spratley. The 1998 report, which also showed that less than a quarter of 3rd- graders at Tidewater Park met the basic math requirements, marked the first year Virginia students were taking the test. Many schools in the Commonwealth, however, did not fare well on the new exam, which was based on the newly adopted & rigorous Standards of Learning (SOL). As part of Virginia’s education plan, the standards were put into place in 1995 as guides to districts & schools on what all students should know in four core subjects: English, mathematics, science, & history & social science. The assessments are administered in grades three, five & eight, as well as in selected high school courses.

The year Virginia first gave the SOL tests was Spratley’s second

Year as principal at Tidewater Park. Although already challenged

by the school’s poor results on other standardized tests, Spratley

said the state scores better focused her on the strategies needed

for improving student achievement, prompting her & support staff

to “work around the clock.”

When school reopened in fall 1998, several Tidewater Park teachers began volunteering on Saturdays to provide additional instruction.

Over half of the 3rd- & 5th-graders attended each weekend. Then, partnerships with Old Dominion University & a local church began funneling more manpower for after-school tutoring.

The Norfolk Public School System, which by that time realigned the curriculum with the Virginia Standards of Learning, began providing teacher training. Spratley even started using her faculty meetings to provide ongoing training. She also hired a team of specialists whom she calls her “master teachers” to work with both the teachers & students. She credits their work for much of the school’s improvement. Additionally, each class was either reduced to a maximum of 19 students or team-taught for larger numbers.

As a result, classes became more academically rigorous, lesson plans standards-driven, & every minute accounted for, which Spratley refers to as “time on task.” Time was blocked in the morning to teach communications skills & in the afternoon for math, history & social science. Spratley also began hosting monthly “SOL Training Dinners” for the parents, posting the test scores on the wall, explaining to them, “This is where we are,” & then pointing to the standards saying, “This is where we have to go.”

The fruit of Tidewater Park’s labor was immediately evident: 1999 test scores for 5th-graders on the English exam rose to 43%, up from 18% in the previous year, & to 81 percent on the 2000 results.

One Standard for All

Spratley says that the remedial efforts were easy compared to her greatest challenge. “One of my hardest tasks is to continue to foster the thought that we have to expect our children to learn,” she says passionately. “It is not okay for our children to receive dumbed-down instruction… Challenge their minds.”

She says because low income too often is tied to low expectations, the victory of Tidewater Park — where 88% of the students are eligible for free & reduced-price lunch — was often met with disbelief.

Nonetheless, for the first time Spratley says she sees pride from the community, students & teachers. She considers having higher expectations, bolstered with state standards, to be a catalyst for that change. “Now everyone has something to work towards,” she explains. “So there isn’t a standard over here for Taylor Elementary — a wealthy school — & a standard over here for Tidewater Park. My students have to meet the same standard that children from other schools & other socio-economic backgrounds meet.”

She says teaching content tied to standards beginning in kindergarten helps start children on an equal footing. Angela West, whose 5th-grade daughter & youngest son attend Tidewater Park, agrees. “It’s a little harder for my daughter because she didn’t start out doing the SOL, but my son has to know these 20 words to pass & he knows them. He already knows how to read in kindergarten,” she muses.

’69 Won’t Do’

In the end, an accountability system, in which each stakeholder is held responsible for student achievement, must accompany the standards.

Spratley, who says she holds teachers accountable just as she is held accountable by the superintendent, expects every Tidewater Park student to master at least 70% of the SOL. “I say to my teachers, ‘Now, 69 won’t do,'” she says, but stresses, “The goal really is to get all of our students to meet the standards because even if we have 75%, we’ve left some children behind.” Test data, which can be disaggregated by teacher to reveal whose students are not performing, is tied closely to end-of-the-year evaluations.

Consequently, Lisa Ellick admits feeling pressure in teaching the 3rd grade, the level when students are first tested on the SOLs.

“We have to think of creative ways to get them to review those previous years along with focusing on the content that they need for the 3rd grade,” she says.

Although there are no measures for holding parents equally responsible, Spratley says the lack of parent involvement does not release educators from helping students progress. “If you get to the place where you don’t think you’re accountable `because the mothers didn’t do something,’ then you’re in the wrong field,” she asserts.

Low-test results are also a determining factor for promotion to the next grade. Therefore, Tidewater Park employs innovative methods for teaching children that rewards & sanctions accompany their responsibility to learn.

For example, the “Conduct Chart,” an idea from Old Dominion University, starts every child off each day with a green dot for superb behavior. Any infraction changes the dot through several coded colors that eventually end in a gold dot, the most serious

offense: a conference with the parent. But the students are always given opportunities to redeem their “green” status.

By 2007, every school in Virginia will have to meet new criteria, which requires that 70% of students pass the tests in order for the school to receive accreditation.

Spratley, who says such requirements are at times needed to drive change, adds, “I think the accountability piece will be around for a long time, & not only for Virginia, because I’ve met principals from other states. The accountability idea is out there, so we either have to come aboard or get off.”

For more information about Virginia’s Standards of Learning, visit To learn more about the success of Tidewater Park, visit, or call 757-628-2500.

John McGrath, Nicole Ashby, Kirk Winters, & Peter Kickbush

U.S. Department of Education