Failure Is Not an Option with Proposed SOL Revisions: Part Two

Lisa Coons

by Charles Pyle

Last month, we examined two items on the agendas for the Board of Education’s January 24-25 meetings that seemed to fly in the face of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 campaign promises to raise expectations for students and schools and increase transparency in how the commonwealth reports on the performance of both.

Under one of Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons’ proposals — which was abruptly removed from the agenda of the board’s January 25 business meeting — students would no longer fail Standards of Learning tests in reading and math. Rather, students who failed to meet the proficiency benchmarks would be reported as performing at the “basic” or “below basic” levels. 

As pointed out in last month’s article, while these descriptors mirror those on the national reading and math tests, the potential for confusion would be high given that Virginia sets the proficiency bar on its reading and math SOL tests much lower than the benchmarks students must meet on the national tests, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Youngkin expressed his concerns about Virginia’s low expectations on the campaign trail in 2021, and vowed in his May 2022 report “Our Commitment to Virginians: High Expectations and Excellence for All Students” to raise the commonwealth’s expectations for students to equal the rigor of the national benchmarks. The governor’s report noted that while other states raised standards during recent years, Virginia’s expectations relative to national standards had slipped to the lowest in the nation. 

But a recent but little-noticed National Center for Education Statistics study confirms that this is still the case, despite the governor’s promise to raise expectations.

NCES describes its “Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales” as the “go-to study” for comparing state proficiency standards with how proficiency is defined on the national assessments. In October, NCES published what it described as an “early look” at how state expectations stack up to  proficiency on the 2022 NAEP, the most recent battery of the national reading and math tests.

Two years into the Youngkin administration — and 15 months after what the governor described as catastrophic declines on the 2022 national tests — Virginia is the only state that defines proficiency in both fourth grade reading and math at below the “below basic” level on the national tests. The national testing program describes below basic as denoting performance that falls below its lowest performance level (basic).

Coons’ decision — if it was her decision — to pull the SOL performance descriptions item from the January 25 Board of Education agenda went unexplained on the Virginia Department of Education website. The Board of Education’s bylaws vest final say over agenda items with the president of the board.

Coons’ proposals for blurring the line between failure and minimum proficiency — and for revising the commonwealth’s school accreditation standards — are aligned with the desires of stakeholders engaged last fall during a series of “listening sessions,” as opposed to the governor’s 2021 campaign themes.

For those not fluent in what late Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editor Paul Greenburg described as “Educanto,” stakeholders comprise superintendents, principals, school boards, teachers and their respective lobbying organizations. In other words, the adults employed by the public education system or responsible for managing it.

Coons’ accreditation proposals — which were discussed during the board’s January 24 work session — would continue to award equal weight to proficiency and growth in rating school performance, just as the current accreditation standards developed during the McAuliffe administration do. 

Board President Grace Creasey was the only member to clearly advocate prioritizing proficiency in creating a new accountability system, as previously advocated by the governor. Andy Rotherham — a Democrat who accepted an appointment by Youngkin in hopes of strengthening accountability standards for underserved students — was not present for the work session.

A new Harvard study and post-pandemic accreditation ratings illustrate the potential consequences of weighing proficiency and growth equally. 

The Harvard study found that Virginia is among the 10 states that actually lost ground in reading since the return to in-person learning in 2022. Despite this retrograde movement — and the collapse of achievement in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic — fully 89% of the commonwealth’s schools earned full state accreditation in 2022 and 2023. 

Put another way, the accreditation standards Ralph Northam’s state superintendent described as a “flashlight” to guide state interventions failed to detect the greatest catastrophe for Virginia students since Massive Resistance.  

Coons’ proposals suggest a mid-term policy shift by the Youngkin administration and concerns about a less-than-triumphant conclusion of the governor’s term in 2026, given that increases in the rigor of the SOL program historically have led to short-term dips in pass rates on the tests and in the number of schools earning full accreditation. 

No Virginia governor — especially one who made education a central campaign theme — wants the end of his single, four-year term marked by declines in student and school performance. 

But what if Youngkin had acted to raise expectations immediately after achieving an early majority on the Board of Education in July 2022? 

The board has broad powers under the state constitution over standards for students and schools. Adjusting “cut scores” on SOL tests and the weighting of proficiency vs. growth in calculating accreditation ratings could have been done swiftly, without requiring a 12–18-month regulatory process.   

Indeed, under Youngkin’s first state superintendent, VDOE staff were developing proposals to raise expectations for students and schools — without shocking a system struggling to emerge from the pandemic.

Given the history of the SOL program since 2000, it would have been well within the realm of possibility for Youngkin to leave office in January 2026 on a note of triumph, with a key campaign promise fulfilled and student achievement in Virginia again on the rise.

Charles Pyle covered the roll out of the SOL reform as a reporter with WWBT (NBC12) in the 1990s and served as director of communications of the Virginia Department of Education 2000-2023.