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Standardized testing scores drop in Virginia, reflecting impact of pandemic

Standardized test scores dropped across Virginia this past academic year — the first time the state administered testing since the coronavirus pandemic began — leaving some families worried, others questioning why the testing took place and school districts statewide scrambling to catch up struggling students.

The results of the 2020-2021 Standards of Learning or SOL tests, which students sat for in the spring, also show that fewer students took the exams than before the pandemic. And the data suggests that racial and socioeconomic gaps in academic achievement widened during the past year and a half of online-only learning, confirming education experts’ predictions.

The “test scores tell us what we already knew — students need to be in the classroom without disruption to learn effectively,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James F. Lane said in a statement. “The connections, structures and supports our school communities provide are irreplaceable.”

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The yearly examinations, mandated under federal law, assess students in three required areas: reading, math and science. Local school districts and state officials use the tests to determine school accreditation, gauge teachers’ effectiveness and assess students’ academic progress, sometimes factoring SOL scores into class placement decisions.

Because of the pandemic, and after receiving a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, Virginia opted not to offer the exams at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Officials will not use the 2020-2021 SOL results to determine accreditation, according to the Virginia Department of Education, and will instead continue to waive the requirement.

The 2020-2021 results show that 69 percent of students passed their reading exams, 54 percent passed math and 59 percent passed science.

That compares poorly to 2018-2019, the last school year in which the tests were taken, when 78 percent of students passed reading, 82 percent passed math and 81 percent passed science.

In a normal year, close to 99 percent of Virginia students sit for the state exams.

But in the spring, about 75 percent of students took their reading SOLs, roughly 79 percent sat for the math tests and 80 percent took the science exams. Some school districts offered parents an opt-out option given the ongoing pressures of the pandemic and the fact that children would have to come inside school buildings to take the exams, according to education experts.

Black, Hispanic and low-income students lagged behind their White, Asian and wealthier peers this past year, especially in math and science. The percentage of Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged Virginia students who passed their science and math SOLs dropped by roughly 30 percentage points from 2018-2019 to 2020-2021. By contrast, the percentage of White and Asian students who passed their science and math SOLs dropped between about 15 to 20 percentage points from 2018-2019 to 2020-2021.

“The SOL data from last year also highlights inequities between student groups,” Lane said. “VDOE remains resolute in its commitment to supporting educators to close these achievement gaps.”

The drop in test scores in Virginia mirrors a decline that is emerging nationwide as states report their results from the last academic year. Equally serious declines have appeared in Louisiana, Idaho and Tennessee, among other states.

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Jack Schneider, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell’s school of education and author of the book “Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality,” said the results are concerning, if predictable. But he also questioned the validity of the data, given so many students chose not to take the tests this past spring.

And, Schneider added, he fears school officials will see the drop in test results as a reason to begin focusing more heavily on test preparation ahead of this spring — by doing things like “teaching to the test” and holding practice testing sessions. But he warned that approach will likely alienate children who are returning to bricks-and-mortar classrooms for the first time in 18 months.

Instead, he said schools should consider alternative solutions such as giving everyone an extra year of school.

“I would love to see us talk less about learning loss and test scores, and more about how we are going to do right by young people and give them the full experience of school for as long as they would have had, if there wasn’t a pandemic,” Schneider said.

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In Alexandria City Public Schools, officials are responding to the dip in SOL scores partly by restructuring and repacing school curriculums to “recover and review some content information” that children may have missed in the last year and a half, said Darrell Sampson, executive director of student support teams.

Students in the Northern Virginia school system of 16,000 passed their state exams in reading this spring at about the same rate as they did in 2018-2019. But the percentage of Alexandria students who passed their math SOLs dropped by 15 percentage points from 2018-2019 to 2020-2021, with steeper declines coming among Black and Hispanic students.

Alexandria’s results are in line with those seen by other Northern Virginia systems: In neighboring Fairfax County Public Schools, officials recently announced SOL pass rates in reading, math and science fell by eight, 25 and 19 percentage points respectively compared with two years ago.

In Arlington Public Schools, SOL pass rates in reading dropped by five percentage points, according to school data, while pass rates in math dropped by 21 percentage points.

Similarly in Loudoun County Public Schools, SOL pass rates in reading dropped by five percentage points, while pass rates in math dropped by 23 percentage points and pass rates in science dropped by 16 percentage points, per school data.

In Alexandria, officials will offer more small-group academic interventions and individual tutoring sessions this school year to help children recover academically, Sampson said. But the school system is also pursuing solutions that focus on students’ mental and emotional health, he said.

In addition to holding 30 minutes of social-emotional learning each day, Alexandria is asking teachers to incorporate other social-emotional lessons into their regular curriculums. And it is identifying students who may need individual or group counseling from school social workers, counselors and psychologists, who can offer social, emotional and behavioral support.

“We know that if students are not emotionally, socially and behaviorally ready in a space to learn, that the academic learning cannot occur,” said Kennetra Wood, Alexandria’s executive director of equity and alternative programs. “Then we cannot work to reduce the gaps that we are seeing in learning.”

Meanwhile, Fairfax parent Alison Babineau is just hoping her daughter doesn’t lose her love for math. The seventh-grader scored poorly on her math SOLs in the spring and, despite her excellent grades, was forced to take a lower-level math class this year, Babineau said.

Enrolling in algebra, as Babineau’s daughter hoped to do, required scoring a 500 or above on the math SOL. Babineau’s daughter earned a 451 and is now taking a “math honors” class.

Babineau said she attributes her daughter’s performance on the math SOLs to virtual learning. Despite her teachers’ best efforts, the seventh-grader wound up missing about 30 percent of the curriculum online, Babineau said.

Babineau said she wished school officials had counted the SOL scores less in determining her daughter’s math placement.

“I think what I would have done is evaluate the metrics that we’ve used to measure performance previously, then in some way, shape or form determine if those are still accurate given the conditions in which our kids learned,” she said.

A Fairfax schools spokeswoman noted that staffers consider multiple factors, including SOL scores, when making placement decisions and that families can appeal their child’s placement.

Babineau and her husband have repeatedly told their daughter that her SOL score does not matter and urged the seventh-grader to keep learning and loving math this year.

Babineau is not sure the lesson is sticking.

“Even today, months later, she still talks about what she considers was a failure for her,” Babineau said. “It still bothers her.”