A Willful Ignorance

weigand_letterby James A. Bacon

A key goal of administering the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests to Virginia public school students is to give educators and citizens objective metrics by which to measure how effective a job different schools and school districts are doing, and to hold them accountable for results. In the 2014-2015 school year, the Virginia Board of Education allowed schools who failed tests “by narrow margins or because of extenuating circumstances” to retake the tests. When SOL test scores showed significant improvement that year, some citizens justifiably wondered if the new policy was a significant factor.

Reader Jim Weigand, a Lynchburg resident, asked the Lynchburg school system for some basic data: How many students retook the SOLs, what percentage passed as a result of retaking the tests, and what were the pass rates before the tests were retaken?

The letter above shows the answer: “The school division does not have that data nor do we have reports that will generate that data.”

I find that admission to be extraordinary. How difficult would it have been to track that data?

For all practical purposes, any comparison between the 2013-2014 and the 2014-2015 school year are meaningless. I made that point in a blog post at the time (and that was before I learned that students were allowed to opt out of taking the tests, another factor that could have skewed results) but I assumed that the data on test retaking resided deep in the bowels of the educational bureaucracy should someone take the initiative to ask for it.

I was wrong. Weigand asked and Lynchburg did not collect the data. It is not unreasonable to ask if any school system collected the data.

Bacon’s bottom line: Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples trumpeted the higher 2014-2015 SOL scores in a press release: “Virginia teachers and students are adapting to the more rigorous standards implemented by the state Board of Education several years ago. The positive trend lines confirm that meeting these new standards is possible, although it will take time for schools to complete the adjustment.”

Given what we now know about test retakings and test opt-outs, citizens have legitimate grounds for questioning whether any improvement took place at all.

It’s almost as if Virginia’s educational leaders were less interested in improving educational performance and more interested giving the appearance of improved performance. But, no, surely such a thing is not possible. Not in Virginia.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


23 responses to “A Willful Ignorance”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I suspect that letter is a bald-faced lie. Or else a bit of legal sophistry, in that they have the NUMBERS but didn’t do a report that tracked the PERCENTAGES.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I agree… I bet the data IS collected and IS reported to VDOE just as the opt-outs are that would cause VDOT to “investigate” but such data is not provided in the NCLB “report cards”..

      The schools are not going to provide data they are not required to report … and I wonder about data that is collected and sent to VDOE and the Feds – because data shows up in Fed Reports (like funding on a per school basis) that is for all practical purposes not reported to the public – not on local school district sites nor on VDOE’s site – but right there in the Federal Reports – the aggregate data collected from the schools but no identifying info for the individual schools.

      So the schools and VDOE have to have the data that the Feds end up using in their aggregated reports…

      Perhaps this is another one of those areas where our General Assembly has exempted FOIA, eh?

  2. You can get much information about the student performance on the SOL’s at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/statistics_reports/research_data/index.shtml
    However, the data does not include the number of students that took the test. If only the better students take the tests, we can see from the scores what opportunity was available to all of the students. Beware of looking for equal outcomes, as if all students have the same intellectual skills.

  3. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    As JB mentions now and with last year’s report of a “positive trend line,” VDOE was able to tell us how much the re-takes impacted the statewide increase in the passing rates but when I asked if they could do it by division I was told no. And as I was researching this, I found that the costs of re-testing was funded by some laying-around-extra money in FY15 at VDOE, and that the Governor didn’t authorize funding for re-tests until after the FY15 was over. So it was funded (at least budgeted for) in FY16 but neither the state or my local division can give out any data to some relatively simple questions. And the worst part is that the schools are supposed to use the SOL data to measure a portion of a teacher’s evaluation (student growth) and how the heck can you measure growth of students, teachers, principals, Superintendents when the SOL scores are fudged?

    Anxiously awaiting the accreditation reports due out soon.

    1. If funds existed for retesting only in 2014-2015, and not 2015-2016, one would expect the 2015-2016 scores to revert to the old level. But they didn’t. Could we be exaggerating the significance of the retesting issue?

  4. Exactly the same thing is happening with the manipulation and reporting of economic numbers at the federal level. Appearance is more important than reality. They cannot admit the real situation because it would reveal how far we have slipped.

    Our organizations cannot report reality because they have no idea how to deal with it. So we sink deeper into a make believe world where we accept what is said without questions or action.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      This is a very important point. When a nation’s top leaders at the Federal level (or any private corporation for that matter) begin to chronically manipulate the truth, including cherry picking numbers and statistics, for one of endless examples, this misconduct gives a license to everyone else up and down and around the nation, including for example federal, state a local governments and/or pubic institutions of all sorts to do the same. Or, at the very least, this is how such misconduct at the very top of any organization and/or nation will be interpreted over time by ever greater numbers of people who are in subordinate positions up and down the chain of command. This is human nature. This is how cultures are built and/or destroyed and/or replaced by better or worse or different conduct by those within the culture. Patterns and ethics of leadership over time will always inspire its followers for good or for ill, or some combination thereof.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Here are two examples of our culture’s inability to deal with truth, and/or simple plain facts and/or the ability to discuss honestly the merits of certain statements that heretofore had appeared to many to be rather obvious, for example:

        “The ideal solution to Chicago’s violence would be for more at-risk boys to be raised by their mothers and father. Until that happens, the only hope for law-abiding residents to Chicago’s high-crime areas is that police regain control of the streets.”

        See article “The Black Body Count Rises as Chicago Police Step Back” by Heather MacDonald in Sept. 12th Wall Street Journal.

        Or for another example see:

        Or consider the UVAToday’s Daily Report that arrived in my e-mail inbox today.

        It contains a lengthy report how “UVA’s Bonnie Hagerman explains the Impact of Title IX on Equity in Sports.” In do doing it drones on and on about the impact of Title IX at UVA without once – yes not once, never ever – does it mention Title IX’s gross and intrusive impact on the daily of lives of women and men students at UVA in the real world of how they get along with one another at UVA in their daily lives since Title IX landed everywhere in their lives, including their sexual activity.

        UVA’s Bonnie Hagerman does however conclude that “Like any law, Title IX is only as good as its enforcement, and the (2013 Quinnipiac University case points up) “a number of that University’s Title IX violations (re unbalanced sports scholarships and female coaches) all of which proves that Title IX is still needed to make sure that the goal of sport equity for females becomes a reality.”

        One has to ask oneself what world so detached from reality is it that Ms. Hagerman inhabits?

        How could it be that so much of what has been going on in and around UVA over the past decade has escaped Ms. Hagerman’s notice altogether.

        Well, since 2008, she’s been “a lecturer and director of UVA’s undergraduate programs in the Women, Gender and Sexuality program.” Plus she was one of several speakers (recently) commenting on a current exhibit at UVA, “Victorious Secret: Noticing Elite Sports for Women, 300 AD.” Her current project is her working on a book that updates her Ph.D. dissertation “Skimpy Coverage: Female Athletes in Sports Illustrated, 1954 to Present.” This is her world.

        This too is the world of UVAToday’s Daily Report. The mind and word control going on at UVA’s External Communications Department is smothering and blatant propaganda of the worst sort and nobody notices. Imagine the education many if not most of the students are getting inside the Gulag.

  5. It’s apparent that the problem with Virginia’s SOL data is NOT what LarryG reported yesterday from Florida — winking at teachers’ overt changing of test scores under pressure to do so from the school system itself — but the manipulation of testing factors (like who is admitted) that “legally” influence the data, and the willful failure to maintain any means of determining the extent of the problem or correcting for it. Be that as it may, the ethical lapse is that VDOE reported this year’s SOL results in deliberate contrast to last year’s as though nothing had changed. And that can be laid squarely at the feet of Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.

    Before someone alleges “moral relativism” here, I still see a huge ethical difference between (1) what Cora Kelly’s principal did to improve his school’s test scores, given what the rules permitted and the imperatives laid on him by the Board of Education and the fact that he didn’t hide it, and (2) the State Superintendent’s (!) portraying year to year test score improvements as the measure of “Virginia teachers and students adapting to the more rigorous standards implemented by the state Board of Education several years ago” when the testing/retesting ground rules have changed substantially. And yes, if the Principal made the same claim locally (it’s not clear from what I’ve read), he’s just as blameworthy.

    Moreover, the Superintendent has not only misrepresented these statistics but has actively lead his bureaucracy, charged with compiling them, into the moral morass of changed factors deliberately hidden from view, and has compounded the offense by denying any knowledge of how to separate out the effects of those changes.

    Morality in public education ought to be held to a higher standard than the “morality” of politics.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree with all of this. And would add that one of the worse problems we have to today in maintaining the standards of ethics today is the deterioration of the meaning of commonly used words. This I suppose is an a offshoot of relativism, political correctness and constant efforts of ever more fragmented self identified special interests to control words, their meaning, and how and when and even if they can be be used at all. These efforts increasingly rise to the level of intimidation, bullying, and even now abusive prosecution of laws and/or threats of such prosecution that are walling off ever more fields and species of valuable discourse. I first noticed this ever growing trend in the 1970’s when the Ivy League universities forced most, if not all, their ROTC’s program off the campuses, and out their classrooms altogether.

      So these problems today takes many forms, from highly passive to very aggressive, and they feed into many nooks and crannies of intercourse carrying their manipulations and deceits.

      1. We are assaulted by “the deterioration of the meaning of commonly used words” on all sides. I have seen it for years in such common endeavors as writing a simple yet unambiguous contract. But in politics, we have progressed to the point where entire speeches, not merely isolated words, are double entendres directed, it seems, at pleasing one’s true believers while managing to least offend parallel audiences who loath each other and whose ambition, it seems, is to elect the presidential candidate whose gender-bias/misogyny most reflects their own and whose hollow promises otherwise offend them the least. Whatever has happened to saying proudly, clearly, account-ably, realistically, what one actually proposes to DO as our federal Chief Executive? Whatever has happened to the press, and to the electorate, that we tolerate non-disclosures and non-answers and non-sense responses to the most basic questions of policy and governance? In contrast, the Superintendent of Education playing fast and loose with a few SOL statistics is refreshingly business-as-usual.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          well – you have this:


          accompanied by a virtual explosion of conspiracy theories..

          in the era of the internet and the “knowledge” economy…MOOC, the demand for college degrees…and strong feelings about legitimacy and value of K-12 public education.

          Makes me actually wonder if a candidate promised full repeal of NCLB – what the favor/oppose numbers would look like.

          The irony is – prior to 2001 – we knew almost nothing about the actual performance of the K-12 schools – it was totally whatever those in charge wished to share – or not.

          Now -not only do we demand it as if it is mandated in the Constitution – but we don’t trust it either!

          lord lord

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    just want to remind folks: ” Principal Brandon Davis

    allegedly <————

    told teachers this spring to call the parents of students who appeared on the brink of failing the exams to inform them of their right to opt out of the tests, according to the investigation. "

    and to note this – the truly much more terrible scores at several other elementary schools that were apparently accurately owned up to.
    Cora Kelly Magnet Elementary 76.10% <—–
    James K. Polk Elementary 70.69% <—–
    Jefferson-Houston Elementary 59.93% <—–
    Mount Vernon Elementary 64.99% <—–
    William Ramsay Elementary 59.49% <—–

    Douglas Macarthur Elementary 76.15%
    John Adams Elementary 74.31%
    Charles Barrett Elementary 88.78%
    George Mason Elementary 80.69%
    Patrick Henry Elementary 78.87%
    Samuel W. Tucker Elementary 80.00%

    finally = at some schools I'm familiar with – the SOL test grades – do identify the kids who are at risk for failing the test – and meetings are held – to determine what can be done – to get that kid help so he will pass the SOLs… and of course – the kids they think are not going to pass even with help – are tallied up to see how the school score is probably going to be…

    another school that got into SOL trouble – they brought in a "take-over" principle after the state encourage them to do so and offered a principle that had just turned around another school the prior year.

    It turned out that her solution was to get rid about a third of the teachers – that she replaced with entry level folks – and not surprisingly that year the SOL testing went from bad to worse to hell in a handbasket and that "turn around" specialist decided to leave to go "help" another school. She had no plan other than to fire veterans and replace them with entry level folks as no other teachers in the school system were about to transfer to that school – having already heard about her "approach"…

    I' NOT defending public schools here. I strongly suspect that very similar dynamics would be in play at ANY school – public or charter or choice or Heinz 57 as you'll not attract competent teachers if they feel that they'll be fired if the students don't perform – and the worse the students in terms of being "at-risk" – the less veteran teachers want anything at all to do with that school.

    So an obvious question here with respect to critics getting "data" is what is their ultimate motivation? Do they really want the schools to fix the problems and succeed or do they just want to "prove" the schools are "failing" and if so – then what next after they meet that objective?

  7. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    “So an obvious question here with respect to critics getting “data” is what is their ultimate motivation? ”

    For me, just like Superman, I want “Truth, Justice and the American Way.
    Tell me the truth…even if it costs you your job!

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    truth is good .. especially if you want to know what you really want – in the end – after you get the truth… for some…


    for me – the “truth” is whatever we set for standards for public schools – we use those very same standards for the alternative schools that are supposedly the antidote.

    I’m happy with that – and I’m troubled by those who want the public schools to meet one standard and their competitors to not be held to equivalent standards

    I’d like nothing better than to see a non-public school challenge Lynchburg, Alexandria and others – on a “true” apples to apples basis…

  9. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    Dude, I can handle the truth. And when we spend the same $185,000+ in taxpayer money for a private, homeschool, Christian, Catholic student, I will be the first to demand the same accountability.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    185K? educate me…

  11. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I agree that the Lynchburg letter is bizarre, but I think the two blog postings and many of the comments ,miss the point.

    The issue is standardized testing and its weaknesses. Of course, it is open to gaming because what students are learning is how to take a specific test.

    Look at the SATs which are constantly being gamed. Many a good test taker has gotten into a prestigious school based in large part on how well they take a multiple choice (maybe it has changed. I think I took SATs in 1969) . There are many expensive help outlets around that can help a student take this particular type of test. They even advise on choosing between the right answer and one that may be partially correct. Nuance is important.

    Standardized tests, however, reflect basically one type of thinking. They do not reflect a student’s real creativity or ability to solve problems. And, there has long been cultural bias in such tests such as demanding students know what was a white bread, middle class existence. I guess that has changed but it was most certainly there.

    Instead of going on and on about cheating on SOLs maybe you should ask if such tests serve any real purpose. The argument presumes that standardized tests as administered by the state for public school students are the only way to go.

    1. Actually, the gaming of the SOLs goes to your larger point — are they a failed experiment? If the SOLs can’t even do what they’re supposed to do, which is accurately measure performance on standardized tests, one really must ask, given all the criticisms leveled against them, if they’re worth continuing.

  12. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    SOLS, ACTs and SATs reflect the unhealthy mania this society has for stats.

    Also, SATs were created to level the playing field for non-WASPs, such as Jewish students to get into prestigious colleges. They might be smarter than the legacies whose great-great-great grandaddy went to Harvard, but they didn’t have equal access.

    This was many years ago back when there were quotas for Jews and other non WASP students. Now, there seems to be an unspoken quota system for bright Asians.

  13. Here is a response that I made in another recent post. I think it also applies here:

    . . . I also question the purpose of our educational system. It seems that it grew up to make factory workers out of farm hands. It was a system of indoctrination to condition students to do what they were told when they were told to do it. The story of our culture was told and retold. Essentially that we are individual economic units of productivity.

    Our colleges seem to exist to make sure that the future leaders of our organizations will toe the line and re-enact the same story of our culture. We penalize anyone who doesn’t give the “right” answer. From elementary school we stamp out natural curiosity and measure intelligence by answers to a standardized test. I know all of the arguments about why they are necessary, but what do they really prove? Whether or not you have been successfully conditioned?

    Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge because knowledge limits us to the box that we are already in. Imagination frees us and inspires us. It creates possibilities that would not exist if we remained in the box.

    It seems UVA’s fund exists to improve their marketing pitch and create more prestige. Is it a tool to extract more money from a student’s or their parent’s pocket? In return for what? A diploma that certifies that they have been suitably conditioned to not rock the boat. That they can be trusted with the keys to our organizations and will maintain the status quo?

    It was once said, “the A students work for the C students and the B students work for the government.” The social and commercial entrepreneurs cannot be too attached to what already is (the “A” answers). They must be unconditioned enough to see something different.

    . . . I was speaking about an educational system that is designed to produce “adequate” when we should be striving for “excellence”. We are focused on producing functional units of economic production. Actually, we are more focused on producing effective units of economic consumption. We should be concentrating on developing excellent human beings; people who are aware, collaborative, compassionate, responsible, respectful, innovative, healthy and happy.

    This generation compared to my generation ( and probably yours) is less healthy, more in debt, and more dissatisfied with their work and life. Education (I prefer learning to education) should be a process of preparing the future citizens of our society to help it to evolve to higher levels.

    Instead, we use standardized measurements to make sure our mass produced units are within an acceptable range of tolerance, just like an assembly line. I am not arguing that such an approach is wrong if that is what we want our system to do.

    I am suggesting that a system designed in such a way severely diminishes our possibilities. We spend a dozen years stamping out the curiosity and uniqueness of our beautiful children, in order to have them meet a very low standard of conformity. Ideas that are beyond normal bounds are considered subversive or “wacky” instead of transformational. Scientists must color within the lines in order to receive grant money. We are much more guided by fear than the spirit of exploration and adventure.

    Einstein reminded us that we cannot use the same type of thinking to solve a problem that we used to create it. We have been going around and around on a downward spiral for decades. Rather than continue to circle the toilet bowl, I am suggesting that we consider other possibilities; focused on excellence and fulfillment rather the quiet despair of wage slavery and consumerism.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree with TomH’s statement point for point.

      To help turn this deplorable state of affairs in Higher (and lower) education around we need right now a fierce and determined re-invigoration of the Humanities that have been gutted (often by their own faculty) over the past five decades.

      This is where that Strategic Fund of UVa should be concentrated first and foremost, injected right into what used to be UVa’s great strength, instead of foolishly trying to do what everyone else is trying to do foolishly. But of course this states the obvious – that, without one’s possession of learning that is strongly grounded in the humanities, nothing that one does can work for our long term advantage, if only because on the way to our doing it we lose our humanity. This goes for individuals, groups, nations, cultures.

      There are many many reasons why UVA’s investment now into STEM at the expense up rebuilding first the Humanities is a very big, and very risky, long term mistake. But we in all our variety must rebuild our souls before we rebuild our science.

  14. Are the SOLs accurate? Any statistic is “accurate” if you mean a consistently calculated reflection of a consistent set of inputs. We’ve been discussing hidden changes in the consistency of those inputs which undercut year-to-year comparisons.

    But what if the statistic is generated consistently yet it’s inherently meaningless? TomH proposes: “We are focused on producing functional units of economic production. Actually, we are more focused on producing effective units of economic consumption. We should be concentrating on developing excellent human beings . . . .”

    I’ve seen those ads with the picture of the 1930s high school in the background that say, we are educating our kids with yesterday’s teaching to be employed in yesterday’s factories and live in yesterday’s world. But are the standards of learning in Virginia themselves the problem? Or is it the conclusions we draw from them, the ways we try to apply them to “fix” things?

    It seems to me that the information we get from the SOLs tell us a lot about how well our kids are being taught that we can’t get from any other source. All these attempts to undercut the validity of the data seem to make the point that others care about the SOLs a lot, also. There’s nothing better out there, is there? How else could we measure “excellence”?

Leave a Reply