Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Plumbing the SOL Racial Gap

SOL_gapby James A. Bacon

Jim Weigand, also known on this blog as Hill City Jim, responded to my call yesterday for a crowd-sourcing of the Standards of Learning data to better understand the key drivers of educational performance. Why do some school systems show SOL pass rates that are so much higher than others? Clearly, the level of affluence and education in a school division plays a major role. But does that tell the whole story? Do some racial or regional groups put a higher or lesser premium on educational achievement than others? Do some school divisions simply do a better job?

One of the starkest demographic divisions in SOL performance is race. As Weigand crunched the numbers, white students statewide had an 84% pass rate on their SOLs while black students had a 63% pass rate — a racial gap of 21 percentage points. (Weigand did not run numbers for Asians, Hispanics or other ethnic/racial minorities.) Tragically, the low pass rate is an advance indicator that yet another generation of blacks will be relegated to the bottom of the educational and income hierarchy in the United States.

The big question is why. Does the SOL performance gap reflect inequalities in the distribution of resources in Virginia school systems? Does it reflect different cultural attitudes among blacks — an aversion to “acting white”? Or are other factors responsible — subtler forms of institutional racism, perhaps, or the distribution of races between wealthy and poor regions of the state? Liberals and conservatives will be tempted to revert to their default ideological positions (liberals skew to resources/racism explanations, conservatives tend to blame black cultural attitudes) but this is too important to leave to ideology. We need reality-based answers so we can address real problems, not philosophical figments.

I have refined Weigand’s numbers with an eye to identifying outliers: the 10 school divisions with the smallest racial performance gaps and the 10 divisions with the largest gaps. Interestingly enough, the tiny West Point school system is an extreme outlier. In yesterday’s analysis, the mill town showed the second highest SOL composite pass rate of any system in the state. In today’s data, it is the one school system in Virginia where black students marginally out-performed white students! Once again, I challenge an enterprising newspaper reporter to take a close look at the West Point school system to see what’s going on there.

Other observations from the outliers:

  • School divisions with small gaps in racial performance are smaller school systems. Are these divisions more thoroughly integrated by virtue of having fewer schools? If you’ve got only one high school in the jurisdiction, it has to be integrated. Or are there other ways in which smaller school systems could lead to more egalitarian results?
  • The smallest-gap school divisions also tend to come from poor regions of the state. If everyone is poor together, perhaps there are fewer racial disparities in household income and education.
  • The biggest-gap school divisions skew more urban. And what’s going on in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, both of which appear on the list of school divisions with the biggest racial gaps? That is not what we’d expect from school systems that serve children of University of Virginia faculty and administrators.

Looking at outliers is a useful exercise but it will take us only so far. We need to look at the distribution of SOL performance across all school systems, including those closer to the mean. It’s also worth exploring other performance gaps — how about the gap between Asians and everyone else, including whites? How about the gender gap? To what degree do girls out-perform boys statewide? And what about the gender gap within racial groups? Is that gap greater in some ethnic or regional cultures (inner-city black, white Appalachian) than others?

If you want to take this analysis to the next level, you can access Weigand’s numbers here. Or, please, bring fresh data to the discussion.

Identifying the Education X Factor

by James A. Bacon

The 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) scores are in, and it appears that Virginia’s school divisions made decent improvements in mathematics over the past year while losing ground marginally in reading, writing, science and history. Bottom line: Virginia students tread water another year.

Here are the percentage pass rates across all grades and schools systems. (The cells highlighted in blue reflect old tests, which were changed in 2012-13 to make them more rigorous.)

Another year running in place – that’s demoralizing. Can we find some seeds of succor? There are a few. I plowed through the data released by the Virginia Department of Education and compiled composite pass scores for every school district. The highest possible score — a 100% pass rate for all five subjects — is 500. I pulled out the school districts with an average pass rate of 80%, hardly a world-beating performance but at least sufficient to prosper in a knowledge-based economy.


As one would expect, affluent Northern Virginia cities and counties, which have some of the highest median incomes and highest average levels of education in the country, stood out in this list of the top-24 performing school districts.

But there are some pleasant surprises, most notably West Point, a small mill town on the York River and one of only two towns in Virginia that maintains its own school district. The median household income in 2010 fell short of $50,000 — less than half that of Loudoun County, Virginia’s most prosperous locality. (Although incomes are not high, poverty is very low in the town — less than 3.0%.)

How do the school children of a small, southern mill town out-perform super-affluent localities such as Loudoun, Arlington and Fairfax Counties? It could be a fluke — the town’s population is only 3,300. Maybe the outstanding performance was the result of random variation, which create wider swings in smaller numbers. Or maybe West Point schools are doing something right that others could emulate. Some enterprising newspaper reporter should find out.

Other stand-outs are schools in the Roanoke Valley. Roanoke County, Salem and Botetourt County schools all scored in the top twelve. Those school districts are significantly larger than West Point’s, so it’s harder to attribute such consistently high scores to random fluctuations.

Even more surprising is the performance of school divisions in far Southwest Virginia. Wise County, which racked up scores equal to Fairfax County, sits in the heart of Virginia’s economically ravaged coalfields. This is deepest, darkest Appalachia. Scott County and Washington County, also in Southwest Virginia, performed in line with affluent exurban school districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions.

Again, one must ask the question: How do these school systems beat the odds? They have fewer resources. Students’ parents have lower incomes and less education than in more affluent districts. The bromides about what determines school performance — spending per student, socio-economic status and education levels of the students’ parents — provide an incomplete explanation at best. What is that X factor? Can we capture it, bottle it and share it with other school districts?

I would love to crowd-source the analysis of these questions. For anyone who is interested in digging into the numbers, here they are:

“The State Cut our Funding” — the Excuse that Never Stops Giving

College students -- facing a future of endless servitude to debt.

College students — a future of endless debt servitude.

Students attending Virginia’s four-year colleges and universities will pay an additional 5.2% in tuition and fees compared to last year, according to the latest State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) data. Tuition leaped 6.8% but that was partially offset by a modest 2.3% increase in mandatory fees, covering such things as student health, transportation, athletics and transportation, reports the Loudoun Times. By contrast, the Consumer Price Index increased 2.1%.

Dan Hix, SCHEV’s finance policy director, blamed inadequate state support, noting that General Assembly funding covers only 53% of educational costs, far short of its 67% target. Despite initial promises to increase funding by $100 million (presumably this fiscal year — the Times is not clear), the General Assembly came through with only $5 million more, he said.

Let me get this straight. The state didn’t cut public support but actually increased it by $5 million (essentially keeping funding stable) yet colleges and universities are blaming the state for a 6.8% increase (4.1% over and above inflation) in tuition? Really?


Diet Denier

Perhaps you could call Nina Teicholz a “diet denier.” The journalist and author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Health Diet,” is part of the growing backlash against a half century-long orthodoxy that aimed to limit fat and cholesterol in the American diet. That orthodoxy, which ruled the medical establishment and the federal health apparatus, unwittingly engineered a society-wide shift to the sugar-heavy diet now deemed responsible for the surge in obesity and heart disease that afflicts the country.

In her book, Teicholz delved into the history of how fats, trans-fats and cholesterol came to be demonized and how public policy strove to drive fats out of the American diet. The movement began in the 1950s with a famous study by Ancel Keys, which postulated a link between cholesterol and heart health. The American Heart Association jumped on the bandwagon in 1961, the United States Department of Agriculture issued new dietary guidelines in 1978, and momentum built from there. Food companies rolled out low-fat, low-cholesterol food products, typically substituting sugar and salt for fat. Pharmaceutical companies introduced anti-cholesterol drugs. Schools and media brainwashed generations of Americans to change their behavior.

How could things have gone so wrong? As Teicholz explains in her TED talk above:

The same group of people were on all the expert panels. They all reviewed each others’ papers. These groups controlled all of the funding, so if you didn’t get on this cholesterol bandwagon, you couldn’t get funding, you couldn’t do research, you couldn’t be a scientist. Over the course of 25 years, this diet-heart hypothesis became ingrained in the institutions. There became an institutional bias. There was a bias in the media. And everybody lined up behind this hypothesis. You couldn’t be a scientist if you didn’t get on board.

Thankfully, a new generation of scientists questioned the orthodoxy. Now researchers are focusing on the excess consumption of sugar as the main culprit responsible for our dietary woes.

Fortunately, we’ve learned from our mistakes. Our scientific, media and government officials would never enforce another orthodoxy on the grounds that “97 percent of all scientists” in a given field agree that “the science is settled.”  We’d never rig the peer-review process to suppress unpopular scientific viewpoints. We’d never channel billions of dollars of federal funding into supporting one particular point of view of a massively complex phenomenon while de-funding dissenters. We’d never demonize skeptics as “anti-science,” tools of evil, self-interested corporations and moral analogues of holocaust deniers. We’re far too enlightened in the United States to ever let that happen.

Or are we?


Why High Schools Should Prioritize Proficiency in Writing and Algebra II


Image credit: VLDS

Virginia high school students who earned the more academically demanding Advanced Studies diploma were six times more likely to have earned an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree within four years of graduating. That’s one of the most recent findings to emerge from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS), a system that matches de-identified data from multiple state data sources, allowing researchers to track the progression of Virginians from school to college and into the workforce.

A study of “postsecondary persistence,” the likelihood of a student persisting through college long enough to earn a degree, also found that students who scored “advanced proficient” on their Algebra II Standards of Learning and end-of-course writing SOLs were far more likely than their peers to enroll and graduate from college within four years.

Why does this matter? Because experts estimate that by 2018 65% of all jobs will require some level of post-secondary education or training. “It is critical that Virginia’s high schools ensure that students graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for success in post secondary programs,” write the authors Deborah L. Jonas and Marshall W. Garland in “Virginia’s 2008 On-Time Graduation Rate Cohort Four year college enrollment, persistence and completion.

“This research provides important insights into the value of the Advanced Studies diploma — and the courses within the diploma – in preparing students for success in life.” In particular, it documents the importance of ensuring students reach high achievement in mathematics and English courses.

That may not sound like the most dramatic finding in the world, but it does lead to important public policy conclusions. (The authors did not draw these conclusions — I am drawing them.). Not only should high schools encourage students to strive for Advanced Studies diplomas, they should focus resources (e.g. the best teachers) on English and algebra courses. Students need writing and math skills to make it through college. All other courses — history, foreign languages, physical education, various elective studies — are worthwhile but less essential.

In the future, we should be seeing more research like this based upon VLDS data. Hopefully, Virginia’s government and political leaders will use the research to guide public policy. I don’t under-estimate the power of ideology and bureaucratic inertia to trump research when it comes to reforming the system, but hope springs eternal.


Upon Closer Inspection, those H.S. Graduation Numbers Don’t Look So Great

inspectorLast week I posted a piece entitled, “High School Graduation Rate, Too Good to Be True,” wherein I wondered if the spectacular gains in the high school graduation rates for Virginia students were too good to be true. I didn’t know — I was just raising a question. 

Reader John Butcher proffers this look at the data:

I would add a couple of points to your piece on graduation rates.

First, the overall 89.2% graduation rate for the 2013 4-year cohort is bogus.  VDOE counts the Modified Standard and Special Diplomas and General Achievement Diplomas to get to that number.  The differences between the diplomas are set out at length here.  In short, the Standard Diploma requires twenty-two standard credits and six “verified” credits (i.e., six passed end of course SOL tests); the Modified Standard Diploma is for students with disabilities and requires only twenty course credits.  The relaxed requirements for the Modified Standard degree are in addition to the accommodations available to students with disabilities who seek a Standard Diploma.  The Special Diploma, also for students with disabilities, requires only completion of the Individual Educational Plan.  The General Achievement Diploma is granted to persons who exit high school without a diploma (think dropouts, mostly) and who earn twenty standard credits and pass the GED.

If we count only the Standard and Advanced degrees, as is required for federal reporting, the 4-year cohort graduation rate in 2013 was 85.5%.  As the UVa blog points out, an 89.2% rate is far from satisfactory; 85.5% is still farther from satisfactory.

That said, the major increases in the rates between 2008 and 2013 are in the black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged populations, just as they are in the bogus numbers.




Second, you ask whether the improvements in the graduation rate are beingachieved by social promotion.  The VCU catalog gives one measure of that:

All VCU students are required to take UNIV 111, 112 and 200. A minimum grade of C is required in UNIV 112 and UNIV 200. Transfer credits are not accepted for these courses after a student is enrolled at the university.

Hold any of the three course descriptions up to a bright light, you’ll see “remedial” written all over.  For instance, UNIV 111:

UNIV 111 Focused Inquiry I (Fall 2014)

Semester course; 3 lecture hours. 3 credits. Utilizes contemporary themes to give students opportunities and practice in writing, critical thinking, oral presentation, collaborative learning, information retrieval and evaluation, and social and civic responsibilities. Incorporates common reading materials and course activities across all sections.

If you think that might describe a real college course, I can introduce you to a recent graduate of Maggie Walker Governor’s School who was forced to endure the predecessors of Univ 111 and 112.  We can infer that things are worse since he left VCU because they now have a third required remedial course.

High School Graduation Rate, Too Good to Be True?


Over on the StatChat blog, Hamilton Lombard draws attention to the steady rise in high school graduation rates across Virginia. The percentage of graduating seniors was significantly higher in 2013 than 2008 for all major ethnic groups, most appreciably for blacks and Hispanics. That’s good news, as Lombard says, because a high school diploma opens up opportunities for higher paying jobs. This, along with the plummeting rate of teen pregnancies and drop in youth, bodes well for the employment prospects of lower-income citizens.

It’s less than clear, however, what accounts for the surge in graduation rates. Lombard doesn’t have a definitive answer. He suggests a possible link to the decline in teen pregnancies and youth crime, which allow students to remain in school and stay on track to graduate. Also, he observes, high youth unemployment rates may reduce the appeal of dropping out.

It’s even possible that drop-out prevention programs are working. However, there is one factor that I fear may account for much of the seeming improvement: Schools are engaging in more social promotion. The more the drop-out rate is followed as a measure of school performance, the more administrators have an incentive to push students through the system whether they meet the grade or not. We have seen how school officials increasingly encourage “teaching to the test” to improve standardized test scores. It should not surprise us if they were gaming the system to improve graduation rates as well.

Let me emphasize: I do not know that to be a fact. I hope that my fears are misplaced. But I think it’s something we need to dig into before we congratulate ourselves on the awesome improvement we’re seeing. We do no one any favors by giving students a degree if they have not mastered the body of knowledge required of a graduate — not employers, not students, not society at large.


Brat and Cantor: Two Unsavory Choices

BratCantorWebBy Peter Galuszka

The hottest political race coming up is the Republican primary this Tuesday involving the 7th Congressional District now represented by Eric Cantor, a powerful conservative who is House Majority Leader and could possibly one day be Speaker of the House.

His opponent, college professor David Brat, has gotten much national attention because Brat is trying to out-Tea Party Cantor who tried to shed his Main Street background and led the insurgent Tea Party parade during their days of glory back in 2010.

But if you want to see just how intellectually barren both men are, read what they wrote in opposing columns in the Richmond newspaper this morning. They show just how out of touch they are and how they are dominated by a tiny group of hard-right fanatics who have split the state GOP.

Brat is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in the quaint railroad town of Ashland that might be a set for a Jimmy Stewart movie.

He spends a lot of time debunking Cantor’s ridiculous claim that he is a “liberal” college professor but the very fact that he is doing this is a throwback to the Old Virginny days of yore. First, off, what is wrong with being a “liberal professor?” Are we supposed to have academics that pass a litmus test? Maybe Brat would have House UnAmerican Activities Committees on colleges to make sure that “liberal” professors don’t poison young minds.

Secondly, the use of the term is an exercise in euphemism that smacks of the Massive Resistance days when a candidate was accused of being a “social engineer” if he or she backed integration and civil rights.

And while Brat makes some fair points about Cantor masquerading as a budget hawk, his ideas on finally dealing with undocumented foreign-born residents are downright scary and are obviously intended as a populist ploy to the lower elements of voters.

Indeed, Brat’s column raises serious questions about just how well he understands economic reality, especially when it comes to immigration. Forces are aligning for some kind of long-overdue resolution of immigration. He claims Cantor backs amnesty for undocumented workers. (If so, what’s wrong with that?)

Brat paints a weird picture in which “illegals,” working in collusion with giant corporations, are stealing jobs from “real” Virginians. I won’t go into the borderline racist and nativist aspects of his statements. They smack of the older days of the No Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan that wanted to keep non-Protestants, such as Catholic Irish, Poles, Germans and Italians, or Chinese or Japanese, out of the country.

Strangely and even more troubling, Brat simply doesn’t understand the American labor market. One of the reason so many immigrants are in some sectors of the economy, such as construction and poultry processing, are because the jobs are dirty, messy and there aren’t enough native-American workers willing or able to do them. That is why turkey processing plants in the Shenandoah Valley have so many hard-working Hispanic immigrants. Ditto construction jobs.

At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Brat ignores the dilemma at the high-end of the economy. American universities are not producing enough software and other engineers so we have to import them through visa programs. Some companies are so hungry for foreign intellectual talent that immigrants end up working just across the border in Canada where it is easier to get visas although their efforts support American firms.

This may come as news to Brat in his little college town, but the world is becoming more global and, like it or not, there will be more foreign-born people working here and elsewhere. His complaint that illegals are getting soldier jobs that Americans might want is strange. The military needs to wind down after 13 years of war. One wonders if Brat even has a passport and has traveled overseas.

Cantor’s column is the usual Eddie Haskell boilerplate. He spends a lot of time tearing down the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have launched at least six unsuccessful assaults on it and still refuse to accept the Supreme Court’s decision of a couple of years ago.

Generously funded by the managed care industry, Cantor raises no alternatives to the current health care system that is plagued with overbilling, a lack of transparency and has cruelly prevented millions from getting coverage because of “pre-existing conditions.” Granted the roll out of exchanges was a mess last year, but health care sign ups have exceeded expectations in Virginia. The expected number was 134,800 in enrollment plans under the ACA. At the beginning of May it was 216,300.

Neither candidate talks about crucial issues such as income inequality, climate change or America’s changing role in world diplomacy. Neither talks about about poverty or smart growth or student debt.

Cantor is likely to win Tuesday but neither man seems worthy of leadership. They are just more evidence about how the right-wing fringe has been allowed to highjack the agenda. As this continues to happen, Virginia will be stuck in its ugly past.

The Nation’s Leading Cluster of Financial Literacy

financial_literacyby James A. Bacon

Back in April, I posted on a Wallethub survey ranking Virginia as the third most financially literate state in the country. Now comes a survey of the 100 best high schools in the country for teaching personal finance, as determined by Working In Support of Education (WISE). It turns out that 29 Virginia high schools rank in the top 100 nationally. (Hat tip: Tim Wise.)

School systems from all around Virginia are represented on the list. What really stands out, however, is an extraordinary cluster of schools in the Bristol-Abingdon area of Southwest Virginia. These schools ranked among the very best in the entire country. (The school ranking does not make it clear what criteria were used, but I surmise it was student scores on WISE’s Financial Literacy Certification Test.)

7. Holston High School, Damascus (Washington County)
15. Virginia High School, Bristol
17. Patrick Henry High School, Glade Spring (Washington County)
27. Abingdon High School, Abingdon

John S. Battle High School in Bristol also ranked in the Top 100 nationally.

The only comparable clusters of Top 30 schools came from New York City and surrounding jurisdictions, a region of roughly 100 times the population.

For whatever reason, the list of Virginia schools was totally dominated by small-town and rural school districts. There was smattering of Top 100 schools from Northern Virginia and the Richmond metros. Tim Wise, who blogs regularly on the Arlington County Taxpayers Association blog, laments that no schools from Arlington made it on the list.

The extraordinary concentration of top-performing schools in the Bristol-Abingdon area creates an interesting sociological experiment. Obviously, school administrators in the area have made financial literacy a high priority, and just as obviously students have responded. Can we now expect to see increasingly responsible personal financial behavior in that part of the state? Will more young people set up bank accounts? Will they pay off their credit cards more diligently? Will they be more prudent about the accumulation of college debt? Will they set up more IRA accounts?

Excessive personal spending and a nonchalant attitude towards debt are a big part of what ails this country. I would like to know if self-destructive financial behavior stems from simple ignorance or whether it reflects deeper-rooted cultural norms. If WISE wants to document the impact of financial literacy education on the real world. Bristol, Abingdon and Washington County would be a great case study.

Why Executive Fiats Are Needed

idiot gets shotBy Peter Galuszka

Two initiatives — one on the state and the other on the federal level– show just how untenable the politics of confrontation has become. It is forcing the executive side to take charge at the expense of the legislative.

Democrats Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Atty. Gen. Mark Herring are exploring ways to have the governor take emergency authority to continue operating the state of no budget is passed by June 30. Herring has brought in a constitutional ringer from the University of Virginia to help out.

Meanwhile, on Monday, President Barack Obama will unveil new rules to stem carbon dioxide pollution at electricity power plants. This will most likely involve some kind of cap and trade system that actually has worked for a couple decades for preventing emissions that contribute to acid rain.

Obama is late in promulgating the rules because King Coal and its well-paid lobbyists and members of Congress want to blunt the impact on coal-fired electricity plants that provide about 40 percent of the electricity in this country. They and the annoyingly boring global change naysayers have rendered Congress useless in addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time. Result? Gridlock.

So, Obama is taking executive power through existing law, namely air pollution laws that date back to Republican Richard M. Nixon.

It’s a shame that there can’t be intelligent discussion about either issue. In Virginia’s case, the stubborn resistance by conservative Republicans in the House of Delegates to expanding Medicaid has deadlocked action on passing a $96 billion two year budget.

Turns out that the fiscal situation is even more dire because of a $350 million shortfall this year in revenue which is the result of many wealthy Virginians taking advantage of capital gains tax law changes that made it better to ditch stocks last year as they did. The shortfall will only snowball if nothing is done. Localities and state employees will be severely impacted.

Hence McAuliffe is seeking out a Constitutionally-acceptable way to keep the government going regardless of what hard-liners like House Speaker Bill Howell do.

So, there you have it: rule but executive fiat. To be sure, in Virginia’s case, there are possible ways to get out of the mess, namely Republican Sen. Emmet Hanger’s compromise plan on Medicaid. But when it comes to global warming, forget it. The power of the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel industry is simply too great. No matter what practically every climate scientist in the world says, we are having to answer to the deniers.

Hang on. June will be a lively month.