Another Look at VA’s Best and Worst School Systems


How do different Virginia school systems rate across the board? School administrators will cherry pick the results that reflect the best on them, critics the results that look the worst. One reader, who asks to remain unidentified, decided to combine the  Standards of Learning pass rates for all grades and subject categories, removing a handful, like geography, which was not uniformly reported. The result is a composite grade/subject score with a perfect score of 3,300.

The top 10 and bottom 10 school systems appear above.

If you’re looking for good, solid schools, your best bet may be the Roanoke Valley, where Roanoke County scores second in the state, Botetourt scores fifth and the City of Salem scores tenth. The City of Roanoke takes the 95th spot, but that’s one of the best among Virginia’s urban-core school systems.

Not surprisingly, the tally shows a wide disparity between school systems. You can get a sense of the performance distribution from this scatter chart. (Sorry, I couldn’t include school system names; the chart would have been illegible.) For details download this spreadsheet.


The data is interesting but there is one important that that it does not do: It doesn’t adjust for students’ socio-economic background or the educational level of their parents, critical variables in affecting outcomes. Thus, the data says as much about the demographics of a school system as the competence of its teachers and administrators. In an ideal world, there would be some way to measure “educational value added” so we could determine whether educators were doing a good job or not.


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13 responses to “Another Look at VA’s Best and Worst School Systems”

  1. I’d need to see more about the methodology but have some comments – surprise, surprise….

    NAEP is a national assessment scheme that meshes with the international PISA standards and I think better than SOLS.

    Common Core is another assessment. Both Common Core and NAEP as well as PISA focus on not only core academic but using core academic in critical thinking and problem solving – which the US and Va fall down hard on.

    and I can’t help but tweak those who still play with the “bad teacher” narrative….

    how does that narrative play into this ?

    are the lower rated schools that way because of “bad” teachers?

    how about the higher rated schools? do they have fewer “bad teachers”?

  2. HillCityJim Avatar

    Charles Murray wrote about the “superzips” and the “fishtowns” as our society rewards the cognitive elite with our best schools and jobs, not because of social background but because of high intelligence. Thus, Falls Church at one end, the City of Richmond at the other in your list from best to worst.

    Yesterday in Lynchburg, candidate for Governor Terry McAuliffe said he would improve public schools (mo’ money) instead of giving some of them failing grades.

    Isn’t it time to realize that not all of society’s children have the same cognitive ability and that it changes very little from the time you are born until the time you die? No matter how much you spend!

  3. ” Isn’t it time to realize that not all of society’s children have the same cognitive ability and that it changes very little from the time you are born until the time you die? No matter how much you spend!”

    well, 25 other countries do better than us at educating “society’s children”.

    how can that be?

  4. Which Franklin is the City and which Franklin is the County? I have my assumptions, but I thought I should ask.

    1. Not sure. I just took the data as it was passed on to me.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Several observations:

    1. If the anonymous analyst is ambitious I would exclude all students enrolled in English as a Second Language programs. It’s hard to rate school system effectiveness when some school systems have a significant percentage of students who don’t speak English.

    2. I wonder if there is a correlation between fast growing school systems and shrinking school systems. Loudoun in the top 10 (and Farifax as #12) may show that fast growing areas are able to keep up. However, many of the other strong systems seem (from a very casual review) to be places that have experienced population growth.

    3. Size may change the results. Falls Church is a great system. However, it is also a very small system with a single 900 student high school.

    4. What is going on in the Henrico Schoold district? Henrico is one of the most affluent localities in Virginia. Yet it’s school system ranks #37 on this list? Henrico doesn’t seem to have higher than normal immigration from non-english speaking countries. What gives? Maybe that meal tax should be seen in a different light.

    5. Does kindergarten matter? I vaguely recall that Falls Church offers a public school kindergarten program. I am not sure this is true elsewhere in Virginia. Is this a factor?

    6. This is a minimalist ranking. It counts students who pass the SOLs. How could you measure a system’s ability to produce top students? Number of students going on to further education (post high school)? Making sure that every student has basic skills is important. Making sure that top students get to the next level is important too.

    1. All good questions. This is indeed a minimalist ranking. I would like to see analysis of the type you describe coming out of state government. I haven’t seen much. Maybe it’s buried in the archives somewhere. But if it is, the analysis is collecting dust and nobody’s talking about it.

  6. the other interesting aspect to this is the total double standard when talking about choice and voucher schools – the demographics they serve and the academic standards they would be held accountable for.

    the current narrative is to give the parents vouchers and let them go to a different school without any mention of comparisons or accountability.

    For instance, how many private schools meet or exceed SOLs?

    how about home schooling?

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    This is another case where Jim Bacon’s theory of new urbanism impales itself on the horns of reality.

    How many of the affluent people migrating to Richmond or Washington, DC are sending their kids to public schools? I am not sure but I of one recent arrival to DC who quickly decided that his two daughters needed to go to private school. I guess the public school district for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave was inappropriate. However, I don’t blame him. Despite spending more than anywhere else (per student) on public schools, DC’s system remains ghastly.

    As more and more devotees to the Bacon Principle move into the cities they will simply send their kids to private schools. Why shouldn’t poor parents be able to get a voucher in order to send their kids to private schools and, thereby, relieve the locality of the cost of educating their children.

    DC may be spending $27,263 per year per student! Don’t believe me? See the Huffington Post –

    That’s more than the tuition at Gonzaga.

    Who, besides the NEA, benefits from DC spending more to provide shoddy education to students than Gonzaga spends to provide a great education?

    If Jim Bacon’s idyllic world of multi-cultural harmony in walkable urban areas is to become a possibility – something must be done about the wealth gap and education gap that exists in urban schools today.

    1. Hey, I have an idea — how about vouchers for poor parents of school kids?

      1. What would make you think the voucher school would do better than the public school?

        These kids are usually disadvantaged – and much harder to teach than kids who are not.

        they take up additional school resources to include Title 1 Federally-funded teachers.

        what assurances do you have that the voucher schools will do better?

        Will voucher schools also have Title 1 teachers?

  8. HillCityJim Avatar

    Unfortunately, there are very few ranking sites, at least free, that can tell you how good or bad the schools are. As such, how can teacher pay be judged?

    I have found SchoolDigger a good place to start. Global Report Card is OK but a little dated. The one that catches everyone’s eye is Great Schools. Anyone who has ever looked up real estate values or houses for sale (Zillow)will find Great School rankings. In Lynchburg, our 2 high schools are ranked 1 & 2…with 1 being the absolute lowest. Now if I am Mr. IBM, looking to relocate or plan my next expansion, you can be sure we look at these rankings and SOLs as well. And no matter what my Superintendent says, without these tests & comparisons there would be no accountability!

  9. well.. you would not have any rating system at all if it were not for the govt requiring standardized testing and they released the results.

    I see no equivalent regime for private schools.

    how would anyone, and especially poor parents know what is a “good” school?

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