RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released data on last year’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests Thursday, showing a weak recovery after steep learning losses sustained during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin and members of the VDOE placed blame for the poor performance on remote learning, which was adopted by a small minority of school divisions during the 2020-2021 school year.

“The SOL results released today demonstrate that prolonged school shutdowns undeniably exacerbated the learning loss experienced by Virginia’s students,” Youngkin said. “And the very best anecdote [sic] is in-person education.”

By the Numbers

hOWEVER, data shared by the VDOE was incomplete and followed unclear criteria, making it hard to verify what effect remote learning actually had in the state.

The state shared these two tables to support claims that remote learning was significantly worse for students than in-person instruction. (Photos courtesy: VDOE)

“The bottom line is that in-person instruction matters,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. “When we compare the 2021-2022 data with achievement in 2020-2021 — when the majority of our students were learning remotely or on hybrid schedules — we can see the difference our teachers made once they were reunited with their students in their classrooms.”

When asked whether the state had looked at any subjects outside of math and reading, the director of communications for VDOE, Charles Pyle, said they had not. He also said the analysis did not account for how students in those schools performed prior to the pandemic.

That means that the difference in scores could be attributable to either remote learning itself or to a tendency for already under-performing school districts to prefer remote learning — even if the remote learning had a positive or no effect on test scores.

Additionally, the VDOE did not share their criteria for categorizing the school divisions, nor did they share the underlying dataset on which the analysis was performed. However, the numbers do show that the vast majority of students were, in fact, learning either “Mostly” or “Nearly All” in person during the 2020-2021 school year.

Based on the limited data shared by the VDOE, 806,540 of the students who took reading assessments in 2021-2022 had been learning in person in 2020-2021, while just 27,065 were learning “Mostly” or “Nearly All” remotely. Similarly, math test-takers stood at 905,499 and 37,061, respectively.

An Incomplete Recovery

Still, data on overall pass rates across all subjects painted a picture of an incomplete recovery. While scores rebounded from their low of an average 61.3% pass rate in 2020-2021, the overall pass rate of 67% was more than ten points lower than the pre-pandemic rate of 79.2%.

Balow urged schools to spend federal pandemic recovery funds on strategies like extended learning and after-school programs to help close the gap.

“Teachers are working so hard to help students catch up and meet academic needs,” Balow said. “Schools have the responsibility to target their state and federal pandemic relief funds on proven strategies to address learning loss.”

Meanwhile, Youngkin highlighted the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on learning for those in poorer communities.

“This is a chance for our entire education system to work together to close the achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged and younger learners that arose during school shutdowns,” Youngkin said.

Data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic widened the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their better-off peers — and the recovery in test scores has been slower for them as well.

While overall pass rates for well-off students dropped 15.3% between 2018-2019 and 2020-2021, economically disadvantaged students saw their pass rates plummet by 21.8%. The recovery did little to erase that deficit, with economically disadvantaged students seeing their pass rates improve by just .9% more than their peers.

Youngkin pointed to several provisions of last year’s budget that were designed to address those issues, including $40 million to local school divisions for programs addressing learning loss as well as a combined $17 million to address literacy and reading.

Reactions from Southwest Virginia School Districts

In addition to Virginia state leaders, school districts around the Commonwealth shared their thoughts about the SOL results, mostly focusing on the positive aspects of the scores.

Danville:

Martinsville:

Roanoke City:

The Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) release of 2021-2022 Standards of Learning assessment scores highlights that like many school divisions across the Commonwealth and country, our students in Roanoke City Public Schools were impacted by the pandemic and virtual learning.

It is important to note that fewer students took the SOLs over the past several years due to virtual instruction. RCPS offered a virtual option for students during the 2021-2022 School Year; however, we know that in-person instruction results in higher student performance and growth.

The scores released reflect federal standards, which do not factor in growth assessments or local and substitute assessments. Next month, the VDOE will release accreditation results. These results will factor in student growth from fall 2021 to spring 2022, which will show a clearer picture of where RCPS students are academically.

It is imperative for our teachers to know students and their individual needs. RCPS provides tailored instruction and wraparound services, so all students have what they need to be successful. For example, RCPS uses the MAP Growth Assessment, which is an adaptive test that enables teachers to know what students are ready to learn, where they are on the learning continuum for reading and math and be better prepared to address their learning recovery and acceleration. Additionally, there is a focus on literacy, where students read, write, and discuss in every class, every day; reducing class sizes in the core content areas; adding college, career, and technical education offerings; expanding operational efficiencies; enhancing the recruitment and retention of our employees; and increasing efforts to ensure staff and student well-being.

Navigating the pandemic has been challenging for everyone. We are proud of how hard our teachers have worked to provide high-quality instruction, and we look forward to having all our students back for in-person instruction on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

Statement released by Roanoke City Public Schools on Aug. 18, 2022

Roanoke County:

Today, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released the results of the 2022 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests administered near the end of the 2021-2022 school year. 

This year, RCPS students made significant gains in performance on the 2022 SOL tests, especially in math. 

“Our overall reading increased by 4 percentage points and our overall math increased by an impressive 11 percentage points from last year’s results,” said Ben Williams, director of assessment and research. 

“We are back to pre-pandemic performance in many of our individual subjects.  Our reading performance last school year was strong and our math performance was exceptional, well above the statewide average,” Williams said.

Overall reading scores were nine points above the statewide average while overall math scores were 16 points above the statewide average.

Statement released by Roanoke County Public Schools on Aug. 18, 2022