2021 SAT Scores: Virginia Still Shines… With Caveats

SAT scores range from 200 to 800 in both English and Math. Composite scores range from 400 to 1600.

by James A. Bacon

CollegeBoard has released SAT data for the 2021 testing season, and the good news for the Old Dominion is that Virginia high school graduates outperformed their peers in the other 49 states (and Washington, D.C.). Virginia’s average overall score of 1151 for English and Math was 91 points higher than the national average.

Even in a normal year, however, comparing state SAT scores is a dicey proposition. This year, after K-12 schools across the country adopted widely different strategies in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, comparisons are even more problematic.

“While this year’s results represent a snapshot of achievement on the SAT during an extraordinary year,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane in a press release yesterday, “Virginia students overall continue to perform well above their peers nationwide.”

Lane’s statement holds up under scrutiny, as I shall show momentarily. Virginia’s schools did outperform their peers. However, Virginia schools have always outperformed other states. The key question for Virginia voters evaluating the performance of the Northam administration is whether Virginia’s lead over other states grew or shrank in the past year. Did we fare better or worse relatively speaking? Answers are difficult to come by.

For now, let’s limit ourselves to examining the claim that Virginia outperformed its peers.

One thing that makes comparisons difficult is that states have widely varying racial/ethnic mixes. For a variety of historical — and some might say cultural — factors, Asian Americans consistently achieve the highest scores on average, followed by Whites, and then Hispanics, with Blacks at the bottom. All other things being equal, one would expect a state with high percentages of Asians and Whites to outperform states with high percentages of Hispanics and Blacks on average.

As seen in the graph atop this page, taken from the VDOE press release, Virginia’s Asians scored higher on English and Math tests on average than Asians nationally, Whites outscored their White peers, Hispanics their Hispanic peers, and Blacks their Black peers.

That seems to suggest that Virginia schools are doing something right.

Confounding such a conclusion, however, is the wide variation in the percentage of each state’s student bodies taking the SAT exams. In numerous states only 1% of the 2021 graduating class took the exams. At the other extreme, 96% of Delaware’s students sat for the tests. There is a fairly tight correlation between average SAT scores and the percentage of students who take it. As a rule, students intent upon going to college — who tend to be more academically gifted — are far more likely than others to take the SATs than low achievers. States with small percentages of test takers are testing their best and brightest, while states with high participation percentages are testing the academically strong and the weak alike.

Virginia stands in the middle of the pack with 41% of its students taking the test. Nineteen states tested higher percentages; two had about the same percentage.

I compiled the following scatter graphs showing the correlation between the  percentage of test takers and the average SAT scores for each state. The red dot is Virginia. In the graphs for both English and Math, Virginia is located above the trend line, suggesting a modestly superior performance in both areas.

None of this comes as a surprise. Students’ educational achievement is significantly correlated with the education levels of their parents, and Virginia has one one of the most highly educated populations of any state in the country (with big disparities, however, between Northern Virginia and downstate). By themselves, average SAT scores don’t tell us much about the educational value added of the school system.

I am concerned that the adoption of “social justice” criteria is harming the quality of education in Virginia. An erosion of comparative standing might suggest that something is amiss. But comparing students’ academic achievement in 2021 with achievements in 2020 and in earlier years is fraught with difficulties when the percentage of test takers varies year to year. Making the challenge even more difficult is the fact that other states are adopting “social justice” methods as well. If there is a “race to the bottom” for academic standards, it might be difficult to spot in the relative SAT scores.

I’ll try to crack that nut. The job may exceed my analytical capabilities. If I come up with some meaningful numbers, I will report back to readers. For now, we’ll have to settle for the conclusion that Virginia’s high school seniors modestly outperform their peers nationally.

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16 responses to “2021 SAT Scores: Virginia Still Shines… With Caveats”

  1. vicnicholls Avatar

    Jim, you and Capt. can do this, but with 41% of kids doing this, maybe we need to look at who actually is going to college and who is giving it up. Maybe in years past we had more taking it, who would have gone to college, now they’ve given it up.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    How to compare and contrast this with the many prior blog posts in BR that castigate the “failures” of Va public schools and SOL scores… geeze…

    1. Pardon me for failing to force the SAT results into my preferred narrative. I deeply apologize for following the data wherever it leads.

      (Sarcasm aside, Virginia has one of the better state education systems in the country. That says nothing about the direction it is heading.)

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        One might never know that reading the steady diet of BR commentary of Va education.

        Yes, I do give you credit for “following the data” – this time and only after we have seen a steady drumbeat of the “failure” perspective.

        Virginia ranks somewhere around 8th on NAEP in the nation. We have some problems, ESPECIALLY with racial disparities, which we cannot seem to reconcile in our attitudes as to why and what to do about it… but the BR perspective seems to continually talk about the wrongheadedness of “equal outcomes” when no such policy actually exists.

        I’d say, why not give VDOE – DUE CREDIT on public education inVa. The data – when all of it is actually provided – proves it. And If they have done this well overall, yes, I do trust them to work on the inequality issues – much more so that I do the critics.

  3. FluxAmbassador Avatar

    Zeno’s Educational Paradox: for the 30 years I’ve been following politics and education we’ve been in a race to the bottom according to conservatives, yet we never seem to get there.

    I’d be fascinated to see the performance of two or more races over time. I have some theories on the demographics of the parents of multi-racial children, and I’m curious to see if this plays out over time.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      We have some of the best public schools – in the world – but we often report results by school district, state, and nationally via PISA that also includes much lower rated schools.

      Our problem is that we also have, often in the same schools districts that have the best schools, some of the worst schools and they often align by neighborhood household income demographics.

      Our public schools (not all, but many, most) don’t do well with the low-income kids. (nor do many private schools).

      For some reason, other developed countries don’t seem to have this “gap” between higher income schools and lower income schools in academic performance, so they beat us on international comparisons where we often and usually rank 25th or so and at least some of that is that the higher performing schools scores are actually dragged down when aggregated with other schools that are lower performing.

      It’s NOT at all that public education in the US or Va “fails” in toto. Not true.

      We have some of the best public schools – in the world – some of the best SATs – in the world – and we have by far the best higher Ed – in the world so that people in other countries want to attend college in this country.

  4. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    JB and LG, you both make good points. I am always amazed at how data can be interpreted. I think this data shows that our SAT scores are just above average. What is important to note is that our elementary and middle school SOL pass rates were abysmal last year. Given SAT scores are indicative of those students who are almost graduates, one would expect at least average scores. My question is: What will the SAT scores look like over the next few years? We must understand that our current SOL data point to the need for immediate improvement in ensuring learning outcomes at the early grades if we want to stay above average on the SAT – an outcome indicator of overall public schooling. COVID related learning loss was more apparent in SOL scores than SAT data.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Yep. SAT scores are “downstream” and may show some degradation or may not because kids will catch up over time from the current effects of COVID.

      Older kids also are able to learn “virtually” and do.

      I keep pointing out that Virginia actually ranks 8th or so on NAEP in this country. 40-some states rank lower than Virginia.

      We still need to improve but our problem is not so much all levels/across the board but instead the lower income levels which continue to show a persistent gap with the higher income kids.

      We tried Common Core to improve our academic performance – it’s much more like European and Asian standards and those countries outperform us but across the US, parents rebelled against common core, and now they’re raising hell about masks and imaginary CRT, so I do wonder just how much most folks are really worried about our academics instead of using public education as a political weapon. On display here in BR more than a few times. We don’t want virtual .We don’t want masks, and I don’t think most really want tougher curriculums either.

      1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
        Kathleen Smith

        It is absolutely about income and politics. We get carried away on tsunamis (politics) instead of examining the data and staying the course. We have failed and continue to fail poor children. However, we love to rally around a thousand page rules document on how ESSA, formerly NCLB, formerly ESEA, etc. since the 1960’s, or federal funding can be used. You would think that after 60 years and so much research we would get it right.

        If federal funds for low income children are for services “in addition to” local services, why is it our local school divisions rely so heavily on federal funds? Local tax payers are too cheap to fund public education so that the “in addition to services” are real. There aren’t any “in addition to” services. Local schools must use both the local and federal funds to provide the bottom line basics.

        We didn’t get it wrong in this 60 year period. We have relied on the remedy from the feds for funding the basics, not the “in addition to.”

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          this might be along the lines of this issue:


          I have read studies that say Federal Funding is sometimes used to supplant local funding – just used as regular money, not really targeted.

          Matt Hurtt comments here and has highlighted the fact that some SW Va schools don’t have the “gap” or as much of it (but other rural does) and it’s very apparent in the bigger school districts in Va – like Henrico where JAB lives.

          In that district, there are more than 40 elementary schools and the SOL scores are widely diverse between some neighborhood schools and others – yet it’s the same school system, the same administrators that can claim credit for the higher-performing schools even as they have more than a few lower-performing schools.

          Hard to understand how the same administrators who set policy and decide funding have both high performing and low performing schools, and it’s not just Henrico – many if not most or all of the bigger school districts in Va have similar “gaps”.

          1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
            Kathleen Smith

            Great article!

          2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
            Kathleen Smith

            Most of Matt’s SW schools do an excellent job of supplementing, not supplanting, federal funds. Districts with high poverty percentages above 60 % have no tax base to rely on so supplanting is more common.

            It is not that educators don’t pay attention to research that shows what works, like more time on learning, the 180 day rule from over 60 years ago, remains the rule and state and local funding is based on this 180 day rule, 5 and1/2 hours per day. Federal funds cannot possibly cover additional days (supplement) and the teachers unions would cry so districts are left with little choice but to choose some other plan. They instead hire a Title I teacher who pulls the already behind student out of a core content subject during the day for 20 extra supplemental time in reading, hoping he/she doesn’t get behind in say math?


          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            I’m lifelong friends with a number of teachers. I got to know them over paddling trips that were part of Spring Break!

            They tell me that the low income kids lose far more of their learning over summer than the other kids and a big effort is required each fall to try to get them back on grade level.

            But the way we do summer school – is basically to gather whatever volunteers available to teach no matter their skills or experience. And multiple grades can be combined in each class.

            And the money to pay for staff in the summer is limited – takes away from primary school year, etc.

            It’s not a serious effort.

            They also say, such kids just need more time on task in general – more than other kids – which can stigmatize them with other kids who do not need the extra time.

            Low income, low education parents are often impediments to kids. They defend and encourage behaviors that are at odds with increased efforts to learn. Some parents are totally committed, but others are not – and actually interfere with teachers attempting to help the child.

  5. Gwen Frederick Avatar
    Gwen Frederick

    Home schooled students also take the SAT so it doesn’t show how well schools are educating students.

    1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      You bring up a good point, is this data all students or only public school students?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        It’s true but the income and education level of parents for private schools is more equivalent to the higher income and education levels of the better public schools.

        Few private schools provide a “free” education for low-income students.

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