Are Poor Rural White Wise County Evangelicals More Antiracist than the Wealthy, Urbane Citizens of Loudoun?


by James C. Sherlock

Many are fascinated with the nationally infamous Loudoun County School Board. Board members seem preoccupied with driving social change without pausing to look at data.  

I have thought someone ought to check how the Loudoun students have been faring in SOLs to see if there are academic issues that need to be addressed.  

State data show that in too many Loudoun high schools Black, Hispanic, immigrant and the poor students performed poorly in math SOLs. The data are presented relative to state average math SOL pass rates for those cohorts, which in many cases themselves are very disturbing in an absolute sense.

It is not a resource problem.  

Loudoun is the nation’s richest county in median household income and neighboring Fairfax County is among the top few. Median household incomes in Loudoun were $142,299 and Fairfax $124,831. The state average median household income was about half Loudoun’s.  

Again as before, 2018-19 remains the base year for assessments because that was the last year that SOLs were not interrupted by COVID and subsequently the last year for which the state has district and individual school evaluation data.

The Loudoun County School Board and its school superintendent need to investigate why students in all racial and social cohorts in profoundly poor Wise County in Southwestern Virginia crushed Loudoun students in high school math SOLs.

Maybe they will learn something. And then perhaps the students will.

You know, real school board work.

That heat map spreadsheet I have generated from state school quality data illustrates where the contrasts lie. Look for the dark green for well above average and red for well below average numbers. Just a glance will give one the idea.

Loudoun and Fairfax County

The Loudoun and Fairfax high school math programs are failing Hispanics, poor kids, and English learners.  

They pay their teachers on average about 30% more than the state average — $65,676 — so that cannot be a factor.  

Loudoun has an incredibly low rate of children living in poverty and has a relatively high percentage of English learners. So I have broken out the SOL performances of economically disadvantaged students and English learners so they can be considered separately. 

The comparison shines a spotlight on the neglect of these students by their wealthy school system.

Again, overall SOL high school math pass rates for Hispanic, economically disadvantaged and English learner students in Loudoun do not even reach state averages. 

Wise County  – a lesson in contrasts with Loudoun

To make the point and look for answers, I posted the same data for high schools in both Loudoun and Wise County and the City of Norton which Wise County encapsulates. (Norton, with a population of less than 4,000, is nonetheless an independent city in Virginia and runs its own school system.)

The two districts in Appalachia serve very poor students with funding from very poor populations.  

Median household income in Wise was $38,888 and Norton $28,909. Their teachers are paid on a level with West Virginia and Kentucky, not Loudoun and Fairfax. But, importantly, both Wise and Norton reach deep to pay teachers considerably more than the local median household incomes.

From this point, I will refer to both Wise and Norton as Wise County.  

Together they have four high schools. Loudoun had fifteen high schools that posted SOL results in 2018-19. Fairfax had 25.

One big contrast is that the Wise high schools are much smaller. Fairfax high schools average over 2,300 students each. Loudoun almost 1,700. Wise less than 500. 

The high schools in Wise are not only much smaller than in Northern Virginia, but also have a considerably lower student : teacher ratio. Loudoun has 12.5 students for every teacher. Wise has only 10.3. Advantage Wise.

Another contrast: Loudoun sent a little over 80% of their high school students onto college; Wise about 60%.  

Advanced programs vs. SOL math pass rates 

In Loudoun close to 40% of the students are enrolled in AP classes; 20% take dual enrollment courses. Lake Wobegone.  

And yet amid all of that high end striving in Loudoun high schools, compared to the rest of the state, relatively large percentages Loudoun students fail the SOL math test, led by Blacks, Hispanics, economically disadvantaged and English Learners. Haves and have nots. Something is very wrong.  

Not sure what it means to SOL performance, by one AP statistic is a major outlier in Loudoun. Only a quarter of the Loudoun students who take the AP courses take the AP exam. Elsewhere that figure approaches 100%. See the Advanced Programs Participation by School Report for 2018-19.  

What is that about? Are Loudoun students falling behind in AP classes? Do the students or their teachers not want to expose it? Something else?

I have four grandsons that have taken AP classes in Virginia schools. They were highly encouraged to take the exams. In their schools if an AP student decides not to take the AP exam, he is subject to an interview to determine why.  

Wise County offers very few AP classes. Wise students take dual enrollment classes at an overall rate slightly higher than Loudon students, but in advanced classes combined Loudoun students take a great many more.  

As an aside, Wise County sent 7% of its students to Governor’s schools. Loudon about 1%.

Wise students performed phenomenally well in SOL mathematics. 

Wise County Black, Hispanic, disadvantaged and English learner students actually lead the way, outperforming white students as a cohort. Central and Union High Schools in Wise had 95% Black pass rates overall. Not a single high school in Loudoun achieved that rate.

Those kids’ SOL math performance absolutely buries the performance of their counterparts in Loudoun.  

Black SOL math pass rates were 60% or below at Loudoun’s Dominion, Loudoun Valley, Park View and Potomac Falls High Schools. Their counterparts in Wise achieved between 85% and 100% pass rates on the same tests.  

Are the poor rural white evangelicals in Wise more systemically antiracist than the wealthy and urbane citizens of Loudoun?  

Wouldn’t that be something?

Career and Technical Education and Math

Wise has a far more robust Career and Technical Education program. More than 50% of Wise students receive a CTE Industry Certification through instruction and practical experience in high school; about 25% of Loudoun and Fairfax students.

You may ask what that has to do with math instruction. It turns out that it means a lot.  

The Wise County Career and Technical Center at Mountain Empire Community College offers coursework on its own campus.  Students from the 3 Wise County and 1 Norton City high schools travel to the WCCTC campus, most for 1/2 day.

Some offerings are three-year programs. They lead to certifications in such career paths as pharmacy technician, building trades, welding, automotive technology, criminal justice, culinary arts, electrician, drafting, cyber security, HVAC, nurses aide, small engine technician, and others.

From the Student Handbook you can see that they take CTE very seriously.

“A strong math and science background is recommended for students attending the Career and Technical Center. (i.e. Pre-Algebra, Algebra l, Physical Science, Earth Science)”.

I expect that many students target these valuable career-making certifications early on. They may apply themselves to the study of math for the simple reason that they can see how they will use it.

What matters?

I have not sat in a Loudoun or a Wise County classroom. We spoke above of student motivation for math for use in CTE, low student : teacher ratios and the rather intimate size of the Wise high schools, but there are of course a lot of other things going on.

The VDOE tracks multiple measures of school quality.  

They include the “assessments” — SOL performance — as well as enrollment demographics, college and career readiness measures, finance, learning climate, teacher quality, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) data, and measures of the readiness of kids to begin kindergarten.

I have looked at all of those, but will not address them all here. There will be more reports in this series.

What is it in the teaching and learning culture in Wise that results in such widespread high school SOL success?  

I defer to Matt Hurt Ed,D, previously the Director of Curriculum and Instruction in Wise County Schools and since 2014, the Director of the famously successful regional Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP) centered in Wise. The program started as a consortium of Southwest Virginia schools and has recently expanded into central Virginia.

He explained the policy approaches that improved the performance of Wise County Virginia students on state Standards of Learning exams. It boiled down to:

  1. The CIP used SOL data to define academic shortfalls.
  2. The superintendent’s office, principals and teachers consulted with principals and teachers whose students had excelled to define best practices,
  3. They assigned responsibilities to fix the problems;
  4. They gave principals and teachers both the authority and control over resources to match their newly defined responsibilities and held them accountable.

That is the short version. Matt is much more eloquent.

Bottom line

Loudoun County High Schools have a lot to answer for in math instruction, but systemic racism cannot be targeted as one of them based on these data.  

For every Loudoun high school that posted dreadful Black SOL math pass rate results, there is one whose Black students did comparatively well. Same with Hispanics, economically disadvantaged students and English learners.  

But none of those cohorts of Loudoun students were competitive with their counterparts in Wise. Not even close.

Perhaps armed with that information, the Loudoun County School Board can move forward to solve actual problems. It may wish to consider that it spends phenomenal amounts of money to get sub-par results.

Contacting Matt Hurt at the Comprehensive Instructional Program in Wise would be a good place to start. And talk to the principals of the successful high schools in Loudoun.  

I suspect the multiple sources will provide answers that correlate.

If that is something that the Loudoun County School Board and Superintendent Eric Williams can find time to do. 

Or care about.