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“[T]his was not and is not a political issue. It’s always been about saving lives…” said Virginia Education Association President Dr. James Fedderman. 

Back to school season came with an annual reminder of areas of focus for students in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) recently released the Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores for the 2021-2022 school year.

When it comes to interpreting the data, there’s good and bad news. Students did experience academic gains compared to the year prior, but student achievement was below pre-pandemic levels.

How Did This Happen?

The COVID-19 pandemic first struck Virginia in March 2020. Less than two weeks after the first reported coronavirus case in the commonwealth, then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, ordered all K-12 schools in Virginia to close for a minimum of two weeks. That pause extended throughout the remainder of the school year, where school divisions across the commonwealth ultimately switching over to virtual instruction.

The initial school building closure came within a broad spring SOL testing window for students. According to the official VDOE 2019-20 Virginia SOL test administration dates document, it appears that some writing tests had already taken place, while others were scheduled for the following weeks. The same document denoted April 13 through June 26 as the statewide window for primary and middle school students to take the content specific history SOL test. 

Ultimately, SOL testing for the 2019-20 academic year was canceled. For the 2020-21 academic year, tests were back on the calendar. At the time, the VDOE revealed that Virginia’s SOL test results reflected national trends. The pass rates also came with a disclaimer that participation rates varied, among other challenges.

To determine the difference, Dogwood added all of the core-specific 2020-21 test pass rates and divided that number by the sum of the same core-specific 2018-19 pass rates. Grade level and end-of-course scores are included.

Compared to 2018-19:

  • Mathematics experienced a 32% overall decrease 
  • Science experienced a 29% overall decrease
  • English: Reading experienced an 11% overall decrease

“Virginia’s 2020-2021 SOL test scores tell us what we already knew—students need to be in the classroom without disruption to learn effectively,” former Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in an August 2021 statement. “The connections, structures, and supports our school communities provide are irreplaceable, and many students did not have access to in-person instruction for the full academic year. We must now focus on unfinished learning and acceleration to mitigate the impact the pandemic has had on student results.” 

SOL test results dating back to the 2015-16 school year are available here, and archived scores prior to 2006 are available here

Recent Data

Using the same method to determine core-specific pass rates for the 2021-22 school year, Dogwood compared the most recent in-person test scores available to those documented in the 2020-21 school year. Grade level and end-of-course scores are included. Scores with no data for a year were omitted from the equation, and scores present were used in the calculation. 

Compared to 2020-21:

  • Mathematics experienced a 17% overall increase
  • History and Social Sciences experienced a 16% overall increase
  • Science experienced an 11% overall increase
  • English: Reading experienced a 5% overall increase

After the VDOE released the most recent scores, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took to Twitter to express his opinion. He cited, among other issues, “prolonged school shutdowns.” To be clear, Northam ensured that all Virginia schools returned to offering in-person instruction by signing Senate Bill 1303 in the spring of 2021, which required the change by July 1 of the same year. 

Youngkin posted on Aug. 18: “Virginians hired me to restore a culture of high expectations and excellence in education where lowering standards and using misleading averages of student achievement are discarded. The SOL results released today demonstrate that prolonged school shutdowns undeniably exacerbated the learning loss experienced by Virginia’s students, and the very best antidote is in-person education. This is a chance for our entire education system to work together to close the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged and younger learners that arose during school shutdowns. There’s no time to waste, the success of Virginia’s students depends on it. My administration is committed to working with parents, teachers, and the Board of Education to raise standards and create a transparent accountability system that drives improvement and sets grade-level achievement as the goal for every child.”

The day after Youngkin’s tweet, Virginia Education Association President Dr. James Fedderman issued this statement: “None of us thought restricting in-person instruction during the pandemic would be beneficial to student outcomes. This was not and is not a political issue. It’s always been about saving lives. Going to virtual instruction was a painful concession. But the numbers bear it out: It’s clear from numerous public health studies that schools that chose full in-person instruction during periods of high COVID rates contributed to significant community spread and mortality. Any discussion of test scores or other student outcomes should be tempered with the somber reality of our need for safety during a global pandemic and the trade-off for human life. Presenting the choice to provide virtual instruction without the context misrepresents the intent of educators and school leaders, which was always to get students back in the classroom as soon as possible.”

Across The Commonwealth

Several school divisions across the commonwealth commented on the release of the 2021-22 SOL test scores.

For Martinsville City Public Schools (MCPS), the students not only participated — with a 99% rate, compared to the state’s 95% target — but they also showed improvement compared to the previous year.

In math, MCPS students achieved a 59% pass rate, a 29% increase from 2020-21. In science, students demonstrated a 46% pass rate, up from 28% the year before. Students also improved their reading scores, going from a 53% pass rate to 61%. 

Comparatively, the last available pass rates in the division before the pandemic were 80% in math, 68% in science, and 67% in reading. 

MCPS Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley said in a statement: “We are very proud of our students, families, teachers, support personnel, staff, and school board members. We have made significant gains in all areas and plan to accelerate our students to a place of academic excellence. In addition, we plan to focus on social emotional learning and relationship team building social skills. The journey of academic excellence continues for Martinsville City Public Schools.”

Dr. Angilee Downing, MCPS assistant superintendent of instruction said in a statement: “Our students, staff, and families worked together to make these gains despite the challenges faced from the pandemic. We will continue to focus on the individual needs of our students and providing the supports necessary to accelerate learning and close any gaps that may remain.”

Compared to 2020-21, test scores for the most recent school year in Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) were down in one area, but up in others. Reading was up three percent to 75% in the 2021-22 school year, but writing fell from 79% to 70%. Both history and social sciences and math received respective gains of 11%  and 13%, with the scores up to 70% and 67%. The division also demonstrated a 6% increase in science, up to 63%.

In a message from PWCS Superintendent Dr. LaTanya McDade concerning the division’s SOL test scores, she expressed room for progress, but also noted a plan for that goal.

“It is clear we still have a long road to full academic recovery. Although PWCS has realized increases in reading and math scores and remains above the state average, our SOL scores reaffirm the impact the pandemic has had on student learning. PWCS will work diligently to support continued academic progress, acceleration, and recovery,” McDade said. “Our ambitious strategic plan ensures we are on the right track to navigate the journey back to pre-pandemic levels by investing in our instructional core, maintaining high expectations to ensure academic excellence, and strengthening infrastructures along the way toward greater equitable and accessible academic achievement for all students.” 

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) addressed the SOL test scores in its division as part of a newsletter update. Year-over-year comparatively, there was a 6% increase in reading at 79%, but a 4% decrease in writing at 78%. History and social sciences saw a 9% increase to 77%, mathematics rose by 13% to 74%, and science went up by 8% to 72%. 

The division said in the newsletter: “FCPS annual pass rates for 2022 indicate that, while the road to recovery continues, FCPS students made promising gains in reading, mathematics, and science over the course of the 2022 school year.”