Can We Learn from the Lexington Outlier?

We can learn a lot from outliers. They draw attention to variables and correlations we may not have considered before. In researching the previous post, I came across this anomaly: in the City of Lexington, economically disadvantaged Blacks passed their Standards of Learning reading tests at a higher rate (83.3%) than Blacks who were not economically disadvantaged (69.2%).

This makes no sense. The conventional wisdom says that affluent students enjoy a huge educational edge over disadvantaged students. What’s going on?

My first thought was that I had made a transcription error. But, nope. I double- checked. The results from the Virginia Department of Education build-a-table database appear above. 

Could this be a statistical fluke resulting from fluctuations in small numbers? Perhaps. VDOE suppresses results for racial/ethnic groups with fewer than 50 students. I checked to see the pass rates in previous years, but the pass rates for not-disadvantaged students in previous years were excluded due to small numbers.

However, one remarkable fact jumped out: English reading pass rates for disadvantaged Blacks in Lexington have shown spectacular gains from the pre-pandemic era. In the 2017-18 school year, only 42.3% of Black students passed their English reading SOLs. Last year, 83.3% passed. Some of that improvement undoubtedly came from the lower “cut” scores for English reading exams, but something else is going on.

English reading pass rates have improved for disadvantaged Whites, too — from 73.3% in the 2017-18 school year to 87.5% last year. That’s impressive, considering that Whites statewide have yet to regain all the ground lost during the pandemic. Yet those gains pale in comparison to those of Lexington’s disadvantaged Blacks.

That still leaves the mystery of how disadvantaged Blacks are out-performing their not-disadvantaged peers. Even so, the anomaly seems worthwhile looking into. Virginia needs to learn from its successes. If Lexington is doing something different now than it was four years ago — if that something can be replicated elsewhere — every Virginia educator needs to know about it.