Updated at 6 p.m. May 19
Virginia students and their schools are being held to low expectations and have fallen behind nationally, state officials said Thursday.
In a new report that criticizes past decisions, state Superintendent Jillian Balow details a series of what she calls “troubling trends” in student performance in reading and math that began before the pandemic and were exacerbated by it. The report, which was required by the governor’s executive order, will serve as a framework for conversations about Virginia schools during Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration.
“We believe that this data makes an irrefutable case that the state has not been serving every child in every community in the Commonwealth as well as it needs to and it should be doing,” Education Secretary Aimee Guidera said in a press briefing before the report’s public release.
Guidera, Balow and Youngkin released the report during a public event Thursday morning in Richmond. They outlined a set of principles that they said represent a new approach to education in the Commonwealth.
State officials want to see changes to how schools are held accountable and the assessments used to measure student learning. Their goal is to make Virginia the most transparent and accountable state in the nation but did not provide specifics on what those changes will be. Recommendations for a new state assessment system will be brought to General Assembly in fall 2023 following the work of a bipartisan group of stakeholders and assessment experts.
“Our accreditation system for holding schools accountable and driving school improvement is confusing and it’s unhelpful,” Balow said.
The state Department of Education has been working to close achievement and opportunity gaps before the Youngkin administration.
Guidera said in the press briefing that the administration’s goal “is clear, unwavering and urgent.”
“We must ensure every student in the Commonwealth has the skills and knowledge to be successful, in our economy, our democracy and our communities,” she said. “But what has not been clear is a shared understanding of the current state of education in Virginia.”
House Democrats said in a statement that the report provides limited data “that supports his narrative of failing schools without proposing any real solutions to the issues in public education that Democrats have been seeking to address.”
Many Republican leaders in state government praised the report along with a handful of school officials.
Louisa County superintendent Doug Straley said in a statement that he was confident that educators, students, parents, and communities will together to ensure that Virginia schools become the model for what public education should look like nationwide.
“As we support our students, we must acknowledge that each one is unique and learns differently,” Straley said. “That is why we must continue to evaluate our methods, recognize the growth our students make, and celebrate their achievements.”
Charlottesville City Schools superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. declined to comment. Albemarle County schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said many of the administration’s objectives are consistent with the school division’s priorities such as closing achievement gaps and ensuring students are ready for college or careers upon graduation.
“In general, we look forward to working with the state Department of Education and to the support of new resources that may offer, to further our progress in both of these important areas,” he said.
Virginia students currently are taking state Standards of Learning tests — the results of which will be released later this year. Balow said during the event that she felt teachers and administrators were up to the task of focusing on student achievement and high expectations and opportunities for every student.
“Thank you for the impact that you make,” she said. “Your voice and your advocacy for students is key. Teachers, your lift continues to be tremendous. … I can tell you we would not move forward if we weren’t assured that you will stay at the helm, teaching students every single day.”
The 34-page report highlighted the decline in student performance on reading state assessments as well as the widening gaps in student achievement for Black and Hispanic students as well as those from low-income households, as determined by state and national assessments.
“I know firsthand the impact a report like this can have on individuals, families and communities,” said Rosa Atkins, the acting chief diversity officer for VDOE. “It is hard, but we owe it to our learners to listen and to act upon the truth.”
Atkins, a former superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, said equity is not lowering standards. Rather, equity is giving all students what they need to meet high expectations and then begging transparent and accountable to the results, she said.
“I am confident that my fellow superintendents will reflect on this report and use it as a call to action in their communities and schools,” Atkins said. “Gov. Youngkin’s administration is here to walk alongside you as we take steps to address achievement gaps among Black and brown students and inadequate transparency and accountability.”
In the report, officials leaned heavily on Virginia’s results in the National Assessment of Educational Progress to show where they see the Commonwealth’s schools falling behind.
In 2019, 75% of fourth-graders passed the state reading assessment along with 76% of eighth-graders. However, on the NAEP, 38% of fourth-graders and 33% of eighth-graders were proficient. Those are the only grades that take the national assessment.
In math, 82% of fourth-graders and 77% of eighth-graders were proficient on the state math assessment. On the NAEP, 48% of fourth-graders and 38% of eighth-graders passed.
The gaps are wider in both subjects for Black and Hispanic students. NAEP results are not reported for individual school divisions.
The gap between how students perform on state assessments and the national exam has been referred to as the “honesty gap” by the Collaborative for Student Success, which has cataloged the differences in proficiency rates by state. As other states have made progress on closing their honesty gaps, Virginia’s gap has increased in reading and math, according to the organization.
Recent leaders at the Virginia Department of Education have highlighted similar data points. In 2019, after NAEP scores were released, then superintendent of public instruction James Lane said the results show the need to strengthen reading instruction and increase equity.
“But we must also recognize that Virginia’s schools are enrolling increasing numbers of students whose learning is impacted by poverty and trauma. I believe that any strategy to raise achievement in reading must address this challenge and include equitable supports and services for all of the students who need them,” Lane said in an October 2019 statement.
In the month before the pandemic canceled the school year, Lane organized a literacy summit in Charlottesville to help school systems improve students’ reading achievement.
During Lane’s tenure, VDOE also shined a spotlight on the widening achievement gaps and released several tools and reports focused on helping schools close them. Some of those resources were rescinded by the current VDOE administration earlier this earlier.
‘Eye off the ball’
In the press briefing, Balow and Guidera criticized previous leadership at the Virginia Department of Education as well as a 2017 decision by the state board of education to adopt a new set of accreditation standards, which make up the state accountability system for schools. As part of those changes, schools received credit for a student’s growth in English, math and science, even if that student didn’t pass the state assessment.
“Looking at growth measures is incredibly important, but we should not look at them as exactly being the same as proficiency,” Balow said.
The new set of accreditation standards went into effect in fall 2018. That year, 131 schools were not fully accredited, according to the report. By comparison, in 2016, 325 schools didn’t reach that standard.
The changes were aimed at addressing inequities in the previous accountability system, state officials said in 2017. The new system also held schools accountable for gaps in achievement between student groups.
Guidera said she thought there has been a general culture in the state of lowering expectations. She didn’t provide specifics but the report noted the 2017 changes as well as the the decision in 2019 and 2020 to lower the proficiency cut scores, which refers to meaning how many correct answers it takes to demonstrate proficiency.
“What happened before today is we took our eye off the ball,” she said. “The state of Virginia forgot to focus. We started thinking about growth and making sure that we are giving credit where progress was being done.”
Guidera added that she felt discussions about equity have been a distraction from making sure that every student in Virginia is prepared “for the rigors of our economy and our democracy.”
Officials noted that the report does not address every issue or topic in the state. For example, achievement and opportunity gaps for students with disabilities were not mentioned in the report.
“In part because there just wasn’t time and in part because this is the beginning of the conversation,” Balow said. “It certainly isn’t the end of the conversation.”