Southwest Virginia as SOL Outlier

Highest SOL pass rates shown in green, lowest in red.

Highest SOL pass rates shown in green, lowest in red.

It is well known that Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates at Virginia schools are significantly higher in affluent school districts than in poorer inner-city or rural school districts. The point comes through clearly in the map above, created by Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog. (Click through to StatChat to play with an interactive map that can zoom in on specific geographic areas.)

But socio-economic status is not destiny. As Lombard notes: “Southwest Virginia, in particular, has a large number of schools with high SOL pass rates, despite also having some of the highest child poverty rates in the state.”

The Roanoke region, I would add, also performs well by this measure.

I wonder if the same pattern applies to higher-performing students, as measured by the percentage of students who score “proficient” in their SOL tests. It is theoretically possible that western Virginia schools and student bodies are good at attaining basic standards but are less less likely to achieve advanced levels of performance. If western Virginia schools match affluent Golden Crescent suburban kids in the rate of achieving SOL proficiency, then something really remarkable is happening.

I will urge Hamilton to map the distribution of “proficient” students to see what that tells us.


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19 responses to “Southwest Virginia as SOL Outlier

  1. Interesting… The demographics of our schools are changing. Moving rapidly toward less than 50% caucasian children and a high percentage live in one parent homes. In Fairfax County 30-40% of children are on free lunch programs. Since poverty and parenting are critical factors then we may see a shift in the performance of school children. And the majority of the poorer students are now in urban and suburban localities which could have a significant impact on school performance tests.

  2. Part of the issue is that the measurement of poverty does not normally include the cost of living. If you use the Weldon Cooper Institute’s Virginia Poverty Measure you’ll find Northern Virginia (inside the beltway) to be less affluent than the Richmond area or Virginia Beach.

  3. The school district my wife attended is in rural NW Ohio. Income levels are not on the bottom, but certainly not near the top for Ohio. And like most areas of the U.S., there has been measurable growth in the number of Hispanic students. Yet, the school district and many surrounding ones generally score very well on standardized tests vis a vis the rest of the Buckeye State. Income levels alone do not dictate student success or failure.

    At the risk of firing up Larry (yet one more time), a significant factor in student success is the importance parents place on their children’s education. I wrote a number of weeks ago, Fairfax County Public Schools are seeing a number of immigrant families that actively discourage completion of high school by their children. It’s not a long leap in logic to conclude test scores are not likely important in these h0useholds either. Life is complex.

  4. There is absolutely no question that parental involvement makes a huge difference. I’ve never denied that.

    As far as Fairfax is concerned – it is clearly one of , if not the best, multi school district in the Commonwealth in terms of the academic performance of the economically disadvantaged.

    Not without it’s flaws though I seriously doubt TMT’s claim is indicative of a class of people.. or let me put it this way – if you can show that it is – across school systems then that would be serious evidence.

    What I WOULD like to see is the SOL academic performance of school districts with one or two schools per district verses larger districts with neighborhood schools that are more or less aligned with the neighborhood economic demographics.

    Rural schools tend to not have such stratification of neighborhoods and thus the classes tend to be more homogeneous in economic diversity.

    What I further point out is that rural or inner city – if the parents are poorly educated – they are not going to be the same help to their kids as parents who are well educated …

    Finally – we can choose to “blame” kids whose parents don’t do a good job of helping them – but what good does that do if your own kids are going to end up paying for those other kids entitlements?

    The reality is – if Virginia wants more than a static GDP and a Medicaid-burdened budget – we need to make sure a lot more kids grow up to be educated enough to get jobs, care for their families and not need entitlements.

    My view is that if one is seriously interested in govt spending, budget, entitlements, GDP , low debt, unfunded liabilities, economic development – etc … that a lot of it goes directly to how much of your workforce is employed and paying taxes and how much is unemployable and receiving welfare, free and reduced lunches and MedicAid.

    Kudos to those rural schools that are truly educating their kids and giving them a chance at life and taxpayers some relief from entitlements and kids who grow up educated enough to actually help their own kids!

    • Re: “What I WOULD like to see is the SOL academic performance of school districts with one or two schools per district verses larger districts with neighborhood schools that are more or less aligned with the neighborhood economic demographics” — Assuming you haven’t already, try “clicking through” as Jim suggests, which brings you to — scroll down to the picture of the SOL map with colored dots and click again on the words below it, “View Larger Map” — now you will have the map as originally issued through the Alderman Library at a scale that shows every VA public school easily distinguished from every other. Click on any dot and the school name appears along with the exact SOL score. I did this and it showed me much more about multi-school jurisdictions than I could figure out from the miniature copy with overlapping, unlabeled dots Jim placed at the top of this page.

      The detailed view is very informative if you already know a jurisdiction’s neighborhoods. To truly match the schools up with neighborhood economic data I guess you’d have to consult an overlay of a neighborhood school attendance map and a map of neighborhood economic data.

      I can tell you that SOLs in some neighborhood schools I looked at, in neighborhoods I know well enough to have an expectation based on income levels and politics, were surprising — both ways!

      • income levels in small school districts are more spread out than in larger districts with more schools where the income level demographics tend to stratify by neighborhood and the neighborhoods vary according to income levels

        In rural schools – teachers have to bring the entire class along and low income kids sit right beside higher income kids and get the same instruction.

        In larger school districts – entire schools can be low-income and also tend to get the entry level teachers because senior teachers will choose the better schools to teach at not wanting the harder job at the lower income schools as well as the ever present blame for lower performance levels.

        I’ve also provided studies that show that school systems don’t use Title 1 funds for their intended purpose which is to focus on the economically disadvantaged kids who don’t have the benefit of good parental support and need extra support at school.

        Here’s one there are several others:

        Why federal spending on disadvantaged students (Title I) doesn’t work

        my bigger point is – that we can attribute the lower performance to things like parents not reading to kids or whatever – but in the end – we pay for the entitlements – and in Virginia – that leads to a budget where more than half of it goes for entitlements…

        • Now that you’ve explained all that, Larry, please explain why rural schools in SW Virginia (including Roanoke) appear to outperform rural kids in Southside Virginia and the northern Shenandoah Valley.

          • How do I explain it?

            How about this – and it was actually in the report….

            if income is a correlation of SOL performance – how come that does not appear to be true with at least SOME rural schools and even SOME urban schools?

            what do I think?

            I think you have schools that PROVE that – again as in the report that income is not necessarily destiny with many contradictory examples in the rural schools for sure.

            ” While the SOL test data shows that school test results are often related to their neighborhood’s income levels, Southwest Virginia shows that some schools with a large portion of students from low income households still perform at the highest level.”

            so some folks cite the correlation of income to SOL scores as de-facto PROOF that it’s basically not something we can affect – that spending money on trying to fix it – is futile. The critics will cite that programs like Head Start and Universal Pre-K – “don’t work” because of the continuing lower performance.

            But these same folks ignore the schools where that is NOT the case – like these rural schools and when I see that – I see PROOF that performance CAN be improved DESPITE the low income. That there ARE instruction techniques that Do WORK for low income students.

            So I see this report as PROOF that low income is not destiny on the scores but instead proof that there are effective techniques to overcome it – and that if such techniques were used by the failing schools – they too would overcome the low-income deficits.

            basically I think there ARE ways to address low-income academic issues where-as the critics see the same report as proof that it’s destiny.

            how about that Jim? does that explain it? Do you agree?

          • So, we agree, income is not destiny. Then what is it about school systems from Roanoke on west that accounts for poor kids passing the SOL at higher rates?

  5. You might be interested in my study of this issue (see I found that, when corrected for ethnic mix, all schools perform nearly the same on SAT tests. In a second report, I document the correlation coefficients between SAT and SOL scores. The coefficients for SAT vs. SOL English and math scores were above 0.95; therefore, the same conclusion pertains to performance as measured by SOL scores. SOL pass rates are too coarse a measure — scores are needed. Although Fairfax pays more (as adjusted for the local CPI), Fairfax schools have a lower SAT than would be expected with the Fairfax ethnic mix.

    • Fred – FCTA seems to be a real group with real people and real meetings!

      and most of the pubs belong to you!


      can I ask where you got the SAT scores? did not see the reference.


  6. Pingback: Southwest Virginia as SOL Outlier… | Steve Jenkins' Journal

  7. re: ” So, we agree, income is not destiny. Then what is it about school systems from Roanoke on west that accounts for poor kids passing the SOL at higher rates?”

    I don’t know but I have my suspects.

    so we also agree that if it is possible to have SOL success in spite of income that if we study it – find out the reasons why – and then replicate that we could possibly improve scores at other schools also – rather than writing them off as unsalvageable because of genes, culture, and parents not reading to their kids, etc?

    we agree?

    • We agree that schools can do a better job than they’re doing, and that we should do everything we can to improve them.

      But we also have to be realistic. Schools can’t do it all. Culture also matters. That’s where you and I disagree.

      • is culture involved any more or less in the rural schools that do better SOLs than the ones that do not?

        what additional demographic characteristics would you factor into the model to better explain the difference between the more successful rural schools and the less successful rural schools?

        I’d certainly not only show median income but the gap between the low and high income in the schools. I suspect the gap is different for different schools and especially so for the poorer schools that are in larger school districts.

        I’m not convinced on the culture issue until you can present some convincing demographic correlations… that are shown in comparisons.

        I don’t think you should make these assertions without some objective evidence to back it up or else it comes across as something not objective at all.

        it’s not that we think different. It’s that I do think we need to characterize with data what we are claiming is or is not – factors.

        I’m also point out that there ARE, in fact, non-rural schools with high populations of poor minorities that ALSO do much better with SOLs … that other very similar schools.

        You can demonstrate this with the DOE build-a-table.. by selecting schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged blacks.. wide diversities in SOL scores… how do we explain THAT with culture?

  8. re: ” But we also have to be realistic. Schools can’t do it all. Culture also matters. That’s where you and I disagree.”

    I’ve always agreed that it’s virtually impossible for schools to succeed with each child – that’s stipulated.

    what I HAVE asked – over and over – is WHY there are differences in SOL scores for the SAME demographics if the apparent underlying premise is that certain groups are essentially not educatable.

    You seem to look at the overall stats for the state or for entire school districts and apparently conclude that – across the board – certain demographics perform at a lower level.

    what I’ve asked is – if we look at individual schools – at the same demographics – why the across the board consistency is not continued and, in fact, some individual schools – with the same demographics that underperform at other schools – perform well at some schools?

    and my question has been – if I can show you schools where the demographic you claim cannot be educated – are successfully educated …

    why do we say that is an “outlier” as if it is some kid of unknown anomaly rather than perhaps real and fundamental differences in how that more successful group is actually schooled?

    why is that a dismissed throw-away rather than evidence that such demographics CAN be successfully taught – and thus a model for the failed schools to adopt and follow?

    And why would you advocate for vouchers and the like if you really do believe there is no way to educate some?

    my point is not one of morality – it’s one of fiscal conservatism… why do we accept the downstream entitlement and incarcerations costs as unavoidable when we actually know that it’s not inevitable?

    why is it wrong for teachers to read to kids whose parents won’t or can’t and why is it wrong to put extra money and resources to such tasks – if we have examples where they work – and instead accept 10 times those costs – downstream when they graduate as unemployable?

    So I’m NOT making a “liberal” argument here at all.. I’m asking if we should explicitly seek out and pursue ways to lower the costs to taxpayers.

    why does that become a “liberal” idea when it involves “culture”?

  9. Larry: I got the SAT scores for all of the Virginia counties in an email response to my query to the Virginia Dept of Education (

  10. Perhaps instead of considering – quite a few schools really – as “outliers” , why don’t we see them as having instituted practices that are more effective at dealing with those who typically do not do as well academically?

    By calling them “outliers” – are we not biasing the entire issue?

    and why should we be calling them “outliers” when there is a substantial number of them anyhow?

    I don’t see them as “outliers” but rather examples of schools that have successfully figured out how to teach the harder-to-teach and who should be studied further in setting up models for failed schools to follow.

    so my title to this blog would not have been “outliers” and instead it would have been “What can we learn from successful schools” .

    and one caveat -it’s NOT only Southwestern schools… characterizing it as “outliers” specific to a certain region – further reinforces a sound-bite perspective of an issues that really is at the heart of economic development and entitlements in Virginia.

    Our goal should be how can we increase employment and decrease entitlements – as a fiscally responsible approache to government.

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