Educators Focus on Critical 3rd-Grade English Pass Rates

Virginia educators are honing in on a key metric, the Standards of Learning pass rate for 3rd-grade English, that needs focused attention. One in four Virginia 3rd graders aren’t reading at grade level by the 3rd grade, and SOL test scores fell for the third straight year, from a 76% pass rate to a 71% pass rate in the 2018-19 school year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Third-grade English reading skills are deemed especially critical in childhood educational development. Third grade represents the transition point between learning to read and reading to learn. Studies suggest that half of what students are taught later in school will be incomprehensible if they are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

There seems to be no consensus among experts quoted in the article about what to do. Ideas range from hiring more reading specialists to adopting phonics-oriented curricula, to confronting food insecurity. Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said Virginia Department of Education staff will take a close look at schools that did not see drops in SOL scores to see what they might be doing right and whether their practices can be replicated.

That’s a dandy idea. I have some suggestions…

Data source: Virginia Department of Education. Note. Data for Highland County is Not Available because the number of ED students is so small that VDOE suppressed the data.

The table at left ranks the ten school districts with the highest 3rd-grade SOL reading pass rates. West Point sets the benchmark for the state of Virginia. Every single 3rd grader passed the reading SOL. Even more apropos from Lane’s perspective, West Point has dramatically increased SOL scores over the past three years — up from 92.3% in 2015-16.

Please note that most Top 10 school districts get superior performance from ED (economically disadvantaged) students. The gap between ED and non-ED is very small — and in the case of Washington County, non-existent. The one exception is Falls Church, where the gap is massive. I would not put Falls Church on my short list of school districts to look to for inspiration. There is a noticeable gap in Poquoson as well, though not as striking.

Another pattern that stands out is that the school districts with the highest 3rd-grade reading pass rates are located in rural counties, almost all of them in western Virginia. One might be tempted to conclude that there was something special about rural school districts that contributes to higher SOL scores. But, then, other rural school districts — Brunswick County and Prince Edward County, for instance — are among the worst performers. Might successful school districts share a common pedagogy such as a commitment to old-fashioned teaching methods such as phonics? It’s a hypothesis worth exploring.

Other lines of inquiry to pursue: Is the success more apparent than real? Do the successful schools have a smaller percentage English-as-a-Second-Language students, economically disadvantaged students, and/or students tagged with disabilities? Do they spend more money or less (adjusted for the local cost of living) than peer school systems?

A final question: Can the experience of successful rural school districts be replicated in inner-city school districts such as Danville (pass rate 44.3%), Fredericksburg (49.6%), Petersburg (49.7%), Richmond (50%), and Manassas (50.4%)?

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21 responses to “Educators Focus on Critical 3rd-Grade English Pass Rates”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    This is GOOD! It’s NOT about race or culture! Kudos!

    And I like the idea of looking at a RANGE or things that do correlate (or not) in any analysis.

    AND – this PROVES without a doubt that Public Schools CAN achieve success ( as well as the other narrative that some/many do not and fail.

    AND – I LIKE the idea of using the GOOD public schools as MODELS to compare against and to establish good practices – BETTER than advocating for charter/non-public schools BECAUSE – all the public schools use one standard metric – SOLs and most private/non-public/charter schools do not provide comparable metrics .. even though some say they should take over from public schools that fail.

    Advocating for such schools with no accountability while dinging public schools that provide accountability is not a “solution” – it’s just foolishness and pet beliefs.

    But I do commend Jim for this post – it’s reasonable and rational and genuine food for thought. thank you!

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    In the same recent RTD with the story on the pathetic reading tests, there was another story about how post-millennials (gen z?) read far, far less than previous generations, and read very differently. They are digital users, not print. Visual. In opinions, I think. Now, are they the parents of current 3rd graders? Are they setting an example for current third graders? Or has the trend merely accelerated with the youngsters? Either way, mystery solved. It was my wife, her with the master’s degree in reading, who said they should have been the same story – one headline. Big freaking duhhhhhh. You learn to read by 1) listening to someone else read and 2) then doing it yourself. Early and often. Over years.

    Same with math, except of course there it is the calculators that have done the deed….should be banned until college.

    The educational establishment and parents don’t want to hear this, and then of course the tech industry is heavily invested in changing this part of the culture for its profits. But it is doing more harm than good.

    1. Let’s connect Steve’s comment here with Peter’s preceding post about the lack of broadband access in rural areas. What if…. What if there a relationship between reading scores and access to broadband? Are kids who don’t have broadband and don’t spend all day staring at their iPhones more likely to perform well in reading? Could spending millions of dollars bringing them broadband access result in lower reading ability?

      Just asking questions…

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        My wife had the same immediate thought when she saw that Highland had such good reading scores. It is a fair hypothesis. Having broadband or other digital distractions available doesn’t prevent parents or schools from doing the job right anyway.

      2. djrippert Avatar

        Jim …

        Do you remember when you connected to the internet via a modem? You know … that funky device buried in your computer that made all the whirring noises before connecting? Once you connected – what did you do? Did you read websites? That was narrowband internet access via the public phone system.

        Here is what bandwidth applications need …

        5Mbps or less: Basic web surfing and email
        5-10Mbps: Web surfing, email, occasional streaming and online gaming with few connected devices
        10-25Mbps: Moderate HD streaming, online gaming and downloading with a moderate number of connected devices
        25-40Mbps: Heavy HD streaming, online gaming and downloading with a lot of connected devices
        40+Mbps: Hardcore streaming, gaming, and downloading with an extreme number of connected devices

        So, when the utterly incompetent Obama FCC called for a minimum 25Mbps download speed to qualify for “broadband” they were effectively saying that people should get subsidized HD video viewing and online gaming, not reading.

        1. Good point. If virtually everyone has access to 25 mps, they have access to email, web surfing, and moderate streaming, basically everything they need for school work. But not enough for the hardcore streaming and gaming uses that might distract a kid for hours on end….

          Of course, we’re talking about 3rd graders here. Really, how much bandwidth can a 3rd grader consume, and how distracted will he be by broadband offerings?

          1. djrippert Avatar

            Yes, 3rd graders can consume a lot of bandwidth … watching YouTube videos of cats fighting each other with squirt guns. You don’t learn English by video streaming, you learn it in school by teachers and by reading at home. The idea that you need a broadband interconnection to learn how to read is pretty bizarre.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “Either way, mystery solved. It was my wife, her with the master’s degree in reading, who said they should have been the same story – one headline. Big freaking duhhhhhh.”

    Thank goodness for your wife’s influence on Bacon’s Rebellion, stating the obvious that all serious teachers surely know.

    Let me add a key elaboration to her statement that “You learn to read by 1) listening to someone else read and 2) then doing it yourself. Early and often. Over years.” Only by doing that “early and often over years” does the student reader build an ever growing essential vocabulary and reservoir of facts and knowledge that allows the student to grow into a truly literate, knowledgeable, and fully capable adult who can take full advantage of his or her talents, dreams and ambitions. This demands a strong culture that values, appreciates and rewards learning from birth to grave.

  4. Let’s look at the data. This map comes from BroadbandNow. Virginia Broadband Map

    Bummer, the map isn’t showing up here. Follow the link to see which counties have 25+ mbps, 100+ mbps, and 1 gigabytes per second.

    1. djrippert Avatar


      From your linked website …

      99.9% of Virginians have access to mobile broadband service.

      Hmmm ….

      Is the real problem that people don’t want to pay for (mobile) broadband service? It seems like just about everybody has access.

  5. djrippert Avatar

    “Another pattern that stands out is that the school districts with the highest 3rd-grade reading pass rates are located in rural counties, almost all of them in western Virginia.”

    Very few immigrant children (legal and illegal).

    Highland County – 0.8% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race

    Arlington County – 15.4% of the population was Hispanic or Latino of any race; 28% of Arlington residents were foreign-born as of 2000.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Disadvantaged immigrant children often are hit with a double whammy when their primary language spoken at home is say Spanish, and their learned, inculcated and acclimated culture at home every day outside the classroom is far different, alien, and even contrary to their surroundings at school. This is very tough on a young child, having to master two languages speaking and in writing, as well as two cultures, and a learning ethic, when at home there well may be none of these skills. Some special programs have evolved to work with these kids, surrounding them and their families with outside support, in Arlington. I earlier wrote about one of these groups on this blog.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        I agree completely. I just think that the percentage of students in a school district’s ESOL programs is going to have a big impact on 3rd grade reading test achievement rates.

  6. On this topic, a new Gallup poll: “According to new research by NewSchools Venture Fund and Gallup, 65% of U.S. Pre-K-12 teachers use digital learning tools daily to teach. Fifty-three percent say their students use them daily, and 85% support increased use.”

    1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
      Peter Galuszka

      Funny, i remember 10 or so years ago on Bacons Rebellion that remote, Internet based learning was all the rage. It was like we drank too much laced Kool Aid. What did that go?

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Bacon’s Rebellion was publishing at least as far back as 2002. In 2002 only 6.9% of the US had broadband access although 59% had internet access. Guess what? The blog worked just fine. Maybe Jim can help with date when the first BR post was published. Could be that nobody had broadband access back then.

        Rural Virginia wants a diamond studded, gold plated, Cadillac network with which to access the internet then rural Virginia can pay for it.

  7. Distance learning and computer-assisted learning absolutely need to be part of the educational future. But we’re speculating about something very different here — how the overdose of online material by young people may affect their reading.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      “overdose of online” … good lord! The WORLD is now online – and that is HOW young folks LEARN –

      there is no more “overdose” than if a kid went to the library “too much”!

      and you know what – last time I heard – Kids take the SOLs – ONLINE! Can’t do that with Mobile Internet!

      1. djrippert Avatar

        YouTube is the most accessed website on the internet. Here are the 10 most watched YouTube videos of all time. Let me kn ow how much learning is going on.

        Libraries don’t have Hustler Magazines they have books. All you can do is quietly read. No Gamgam Style videos, no replays of illegal NFL cheap shots, no porn. Jeez.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    One of the big differences between rural and urban is most rural are small and have one or two county-wide schools where pretty much ALL the kids go – rich and poor – college-educated parents – and not whereas in urban and suburban counties/cities the schools are usually associated with neighborhoods – not diverse but largely grouped according to economic status and education levels. In other words, the poor end up in “poor” neighborhoods usually with minimally-educated parents and the more well off end up with neighborhood schools that reflect the higher level economic and education levels of those neighborhoods.

    That’s what busing was supposed to address and there is a certain irony because in rural districts, there is a LOT of busing as well as a lot LESS “neighborhood” schools…

    In Highland County, there is ONE Elementary school and ONE High School – there are no “neighborhood” schools.

    Finally – MOST schools – EVEN rural schools have high-speed internet and it’s true that many folks now have “mobile” internet but I invite anyone here to take a trip to Highland County or the nearby counties with their cell phone and see what kind of connectivity you have.

    We just camped our last night in Douthat State Park which is here:

    and the mobile internet in that area is an ephemeral thing for both campers and locals.

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