As expected, the pandemic affected student learning, though the degree to which depended on the subject area and school division, according to the results of state exams released Thursday that reflect the challenges of the previous year and highlight the task ahead for educators.
In the Charlottesville area, about 68% of students passed the state Standards of Learning reading exams, compared with 69% statewide and 74% in the 2018-19 school year; spring state testing was canceled in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students did worse on the math exams, with about half of students passing the test, compared with 80% passing on the previous test. In science, 56% of students passed, compared with 79% in 2019.
Statewide, 54% passed the math exam and 59% did so in science.
The scores are the most comprehensive look to date on student learning during the pandemic, but they won’t be used in determining accreditation — the state system for holding schools accountable that was waived for the 2021-22 school year. State officials cautioned against comparing 2021 scores to previous years and said they expect schools to use the data to inform planning for this academic year, as well as to identify students who need more help.
“We really are looking at it as a baseline for where we need to start this year,” said Beth Baptist, acting director of human resources and students services for Charlottesville City Schools.
Baptist added that school staff will look at the scores of individual students and more broadly to see where students aren’t doing well.
“If we have issues with the curriculum, we need to look at different strategies for teaching it,” Baptist said. “So there are multiple ways of looking at the data, and our schools have been looking at it already and are working with their professional learning communities now to really see where the learning loss was and where the opportunities are for this year.”
Students will have another round of state tests this fall, which are aimed at giving educators a better idea of where students are academically.
Baptist said those tests will give the division a more accurate picture of student learning.
James Lane, the state superintendent of education, said in a media briefing Thursday that the 2020-21 SOL scores were not comparable to previous years because of the pandemic-related disruptions and a drop in the number of students actually taking or retaking the exams due to a more flexible opt-out policy and the accreditation waiver.
Statewide, 75.5% of students in the tested grades took the reading assessment, 78.7% took math and 80% took science, according to a news release from the Virginia Department of Education. Students had to take the test in person.
“We’re not comparing apples to apples if we compare back to 2019,” Lane said.
In Charlottesville, 80% of students took the reading exams, 83% took math and 86% took science, Baptist said.
Students had to come into the school buildings to take the exams. Across both school systems, schools had different percentages of students choosing to stay virtual, including more students of color making that choice.
Statewide, participation rates were down significantly among the different student groups, Lane said.
Depending on the SOL subject area, African American student participation was 11% to 17% below the participation rates of white students, Lane said.
Specific participation percentages were not available for Albemarle County on Thursday, but 3,185 fewer students took the reading test, 3,827 fewer took the math exams and 1,253 fewer took the science exams, compared with the 2018-19 school year.
For the 2020-21 school year, the state only administered Standards of Learning exams in reading, math and science, leaving writing and social studies tests up to local districts.
The drops in student performance were largely expected because of the disruptions in the last school year, including an all-virtual start and then switching to in-person learning throughout the school year. Area schools have been working on plans to kickstart student learning this year, which started with expanded summer programming.
The fact that students had to take SOL tests at all last spring left some nonplussed, given the challenges presented by the pandemic. Additionally, not all schools across Virginia or even in the Charlottesville area offered the same amount of in-person learning last year.
The spring SOLs were administered shortly after all Charlottesville and Albemarle students had the option to return to in-person learning in March.
Lane said VDOE staff did not see a connection between a division’s test scores and when they went back to in-person learning.
“There were some divisions that were very aggressively in-person from the very beginning, whose results show more students needing support,” Lane said. “And then we’ve seen some school divisions that started virtual and transitioned to in-person later in the process actually do really well.”
Still, the test scores show continued gaps in pass rates among student demographic groups, and that a higher number of Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, English language learners and those in poverty need more assistance and resources, Lane said.
Lane added that school divisions should spend their federal stimulus funds wisely.
“This year, I really think it’s going to be important that they invest more of those funds in remedial efforts, acceleration efforts, mitigation efforts, and everything that they can do to shore up student success,” he said.
Acceleration refers to combining grade-level content with the teaching of skills and concepts not mastered in previous school years, according to the news release.
The drops in math pass rates were far steeper than in other subjects.
In Charlottesville, 42% of students who took the math exams passed, a 30-point difference from the 2018-19 school year. That includes 16% of Black students, 27% of Hispanic students and 21% of economically disadvantaged students who took the math test.
In Albemarle County, 65% of students who took state exams in math passed, down from 81% in 2019. A little more than a third of county Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students passed the math tests.
In reading, Albemarle students bucked the state trend, with pass rates largely holding steady from the 2018-19 school year, even among most demographic groups. For example, 54% of Black students passed the reading exam in 2019 and this year. Meanwhile, reading proficiency among Hispanic students fell from 55% to 47%.
Statewide, reading pass rates fell from 78% to 69%.
In Charlottesville, 60% of students passed the reading exam, including about a third of Black students. That’s a 10-point drop from the 2018-19 school year.
In recent years, the Albemarle and Charlottesville school divisions have overhauled their approach to reading instruction, putting a greater focus on phonics, or teaching the relationship between letters and sounds — a critical step in teaching students to read.
Those efforts were getting under way before the pandemic ended the 2019-20 school year early. Schools did not administer SOL tests in 2020.
The Albemarle County School Board held a work session Thursday evening about eliminating the achievement gap in reading.