SOL scores plummet across Northern Virginia; educators say comparisons meaningless

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Standards of Learning test scores fell dramatically this spring from the last time they were administered in Northern Virginia schools, confirming the fears of many about the impacts of a pandemic-plagued school year on student learning and the limits of virtual instruction.

Statewide, passing rates on the SOL tests fell by double-digit percentages from the last time they were administered, in 2019, according to data released Thursday by the Virginia Department of Education. Passing rates among all students for English tests fell 11.5%, for science tests, 27.2%, and for math tests, 34.1%.

The story was similar across Northern Virginia, as rates were down for all tests in all localities.  In Prince William County, the state’s second-largest school district, the passing rates were down as follows:

  • 8.9% in English, to 72% passing
  • 29.6% in science, to 57% passing
  • 34.9% in math, to 54% passing

The city of Manassas saw even larger drops, with passing rates down 26.6% in English, 45.6% in science and 62% in math. Only 27% of Manassas students passed their math SOL, compared with 71% two years prior.

There were some key logistical differences between the tests in 2019 and 2021 outside of the pandemic. For one, the test sample size was smaller than in previous years, because many students were given the option to take them in person or at home, but only in-person tests were counted in the state’s data. In a news release, the state said in a typical school year, participation in the tests is usually around 99%. In tested grades in 2021, 75.5% of students took the reading assessment, 78.7% took math, and 80% took science.

Additionally, in previous years, students within a certain range of scores were able to retake parts of the test. This year, that wasn’t allowed.

Still, the scores are the first somewhat proximate comparison point for standardized learning assessment since the pandemic’s start. In the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 was first causing school closures, the state cancelled the tests for the first time since their current iteration was implemented in 1998. The U.S. Department of Education waived its standardized testing.

For some, the results underscore the difficulty in virtual instruction, a return to which schools are trying to avoid this fall through mitigation strategies such as masking and vaccination. They can also be used to help educators focus on areas where students fell behind most last year.

Before the results were released, Prince William County Schools Superintendent LaTanya McDade said the division would use them to see “where the gaps are.”

“In-person learning is the optimal learning model. … I think the data is going to show us … where we need to focus our time and energy in terms of content, concepts and standards,” she told InsideNoVa, adding that the division wouldn’t be doing comparative studies with the data from 2019. “We do understand that it was a totally different situation and educational environment for students. But I do think the data will be very telling when we think about unfinished learning – what is unfinished?”

McDade’s sentiment was echoed by some in Manassas. At the Manassas School Board meeting Tuesday night, Craig Gfeller, the system’s new director of student achievement, said the test scores would not be used to evaluate teacher performance. Instead they will be used to create plans for students and get a broader sense of where the most acute learning loss was among students.

Board Chair Sanford Williams said that was the only way to use them, but comparing the scores to 2019’s would be useless. “It’s kind of like someone playing golf and you put a blindfold on them and only give them one club and have them play the whole course.”

Board member Tim Demeria has long been a critic of the current testing regiment, but says this year they’re even less significant given the turmoil of the past school year. Manassas was one of the last divisions in the area to bring students back into classrooms.

“Irrelevant,” Demeria called the test scores, saying it was incredibly urgent that students remain in the classroom this year, but that the urgency wasn’t created by falling test scores.

“Our kids weren’t in the building,” he added. “The important assessment of our children for me is how our teachers assess our children. That’s what they’re there for, that’s what they go to school for. And they knw how our children are progressing more than a stupid test does.”

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