by Charles Pyle
During summer and fall 2021, Glenn Youngkin tapped into rising parent frustration over prolonged school closures and a general unease about falling student achievement in Virginia’s public schools.
Although a newcomer to state politics, Youngkin had the data and evidence to show the correlation between the lowering of expectations for students and schools under his two Democratic predecessors and declining achievement on state and national assessments.
Youngkin seized on the performance of Virginia students on the pre-pandemic 2019 national reading and math tests to highlight the consequences — especially for minority students — of lowering standards. He correctly pointed out that Virginia’s definitions for proficiency relative to national expectations were the lowest in the nation.
The challenge Youngkin faced as he took office mirrored what confronted George Allen 28 years ago following sharp declines in student achievement on the 1994 national reading and math tests.
Allen saw the results as a call to action. His Commission on Champion Schools laid the foundation for the Standards of Learning program, and Allen went on to become the most consequential Republican “education” governor of the 20th century.
Allen launched the SOL reform despite Democratic majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and at times fierce opposition from the education establishment. But over time, the performance of Virginia students improved, and the “SOL wars” ended as a bipartisan consensus emerged around standards and accountability.
Fast forward to 2022.
Unlike Allen, Youngkin was handed a “golden ticket” when a partisan squabble over appointments during the 2022 General Assembly resulted in the former Carlyle Group executive naming a majority of members to the state Board of Education within six months of his inauguration. Given the broad constitutional authority of the board, the stage was set for Youngkin to follow through on his promise to raise expectations for students and schools.
But instead, the Youngkin administration became mired in the tar pit of history standards. Rather than relying on its Board of Education majority to revise draft standards developed during the Northam administration, the Youngkin administration attempted to impose a curriculum outline hurriedly drafted by a consultant. Glaring omissions and references to Native Americans as “first immigrants” energized the left and set the stage for months of political theater.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow — a nationally recognized conservative education policy leader and strong advocate for teaching the history of Indigenous peoples while state superintendent in Wyoming — found herself the public face of the debacle and resigned in early March 2023.
Now, two years into Youngkin’s four-year term, Balow’s replacement is presenting her vision — and presumably the administration’s — for revising expectations for students and schools.
Under State Superintendent Lisa Coons’ proposals — which the Board of Education will consider this week — students would no longer fail SOL tests. Rather, the state would deem students who fail to achieve proficiency as performing at the “basic” or “below basic” levels.
While these descriptors mirror those on the national tests, it is easy to see how they could be misunderstood by parents, especially given how much lower Virginia’s proficiency benchmarks are compared with national expectations. Is this a step toward the greater transparency promised by the governor?
Coons’ proposals for revising the commonwealth’s accreditation standards also seem designed to obscure rather than inform.
As Comprehensive Improvement Program Director Matt Hurt has documented, the great flaw of the 2017 Standards of Accreditation is the equal weighing of achievement and “growth” in evaluating schools. Under the 2017 SOA, 89% of Virginia schools earned full accreditation in 2022 despite massive learning losses during the pandemic.
“Accreditation is one of the primary drivers of state interventions and local efforts to improve outcomes for students, and frankly, the school ratings we are releasing today fail to capture the extent of the crisis facing our schools and students,” Coons’ predecessor said when announcing the 2022 ratings.
Given Youngkin’s repeated declarations during the 2021 campaign and afterwards that proficiency must outweigh growth when evaluating schools, it is remarkable that his new state superintendent is now proposing accountability standards that would continue to weigh proficiency and growth equally.
Under the 2017 regulations — which are still in effect — a school in which most students fail their SOLs but show “growth” from fall to spring earns the same rating as a school in which most students achieve or exceed proficiency standards.
Coons is also presenting models from other states on how the Board of Education might revise the ratings used to describe school performance. For example, Coons suggests that the commonwealth could label schools once denied state accreditation — or rated as Accredited with Warning or Accredited with Conditions — as “Emerging” or “Developing” schools.
These proposals to obscure performance come in the wake of 2023 SOL results that showed little improvement over 2022 and what Youngkin described as catastrophic declines on the 2022 national reading and math tests.
The Board of Education faces a choice. Does it carry out the vision captured in the governor’s May 2022 report “Our Commitment to Virginians: High Expectations and Excellence for All Students,” or does it continue down the path of lower expectations blazed under the previous two administrations?
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.