Research the Huge Differences in SOL Math Scores Among Black Children

Virginia’s VMPI model

by James C. Sherlock

The problem Virginia Department of Education Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI) and associated equity changes are designed to solve is low math proficiency among black students.  

That math performance issue must be addressed beginning in kindergarten and before. At the end of the 3rd grade, even under Virginia’s new standards, every child is supposed to know how to multiply and to read. Both in math and reading, a child’s proficiency at the end of the third grade has proven in study after study to provide a key indicator of his or her academic performance going forward.  

The top 20 Fairfax County elementary schools ranked (by me using state data) by black student 2028-19 math SOL pass rate achieved a pass rate within that demographic of 96.5. In the bottom 20 schools in that same county, the mean black student pass rate was 52.5. See link to spreadsheet.

Those schools offer an excellent opportunity to examine whether VMPI and other equity changes proposed or adopted by VDOE will address those enormous differences in black student math education outcomes.

The VMPI model and other VBOE changes meant to improve math outcomes are generally composed of:

  • curriculum overhaul
  • scoring methodology changes
  • retraining of math teachers in both the new syllabus and cultural awareness
  • elimination of tracking
  • elimination of “high stakes” testing
  • changing the race mix of teachers to match the demographics of the students

Those changes are proffered as a way to lift all boats. 

If that is true, then I suggest those factors should be proven to be contributing factors to the enormous differentials in black math performance among individual elementary schools in Fairfax County.

Using schools with a kindergarten also eliminates magnet schools from the data in any assessment.

I have reviewed elementary school math SOL scores by school subject area for the last year they were given, 2018-2019 .  

I took a list of those schools, eliminated all but those with a kindergarten, sorted for black student math pass rate, and was left with 956 Virginia elementary schools meeting the criteria, 133 of which are in Fairfax County.   

Again, in order to both reduce variables of place and retain a sufficient numbers to be statistically significant, I will use as my example Fairfax County schools only.

I ask for those 40 schools to be assessed to see if VMPI and associated equity changes are likely to measurably improve the math scores of black students in the bottom 20 schools, and, if it does so, without negatively affecting the scores of the black children in the top 20 schools.

We need to ask a set of questions structured to help understand the stunning variability in performances of black children and the factors in those differences in both sets of schools. Some factors to be assessed for importance include:

  1. Curriculum. Hard to see how it could be. Fairfax County Schools have the same PK-6 curriculum systemwide.
  2. Systemic racism. Hard to say that a school system that produces the performances in the top 20 is systemically racist by this measure.  
  3. Relative teacher quality/experience. Possibly. 
  4. Teacher turnover traceable to pay and satisfaction with the teaching environment.
  5. Cultural attitudes/racism by individual teachers. If so, they appear to be concentrated in the bottom 20.
  6. School leadership quality.
  7. Teacher demographics. There are common assertions that suggest that black students do better if they have a black teacher. Do the black children in the top 20 schools have more black math teachers than those in the bottom 20? 
  8. Classroom learning environment. Are there measurable differences that matter?
  9. Poverty. Most likely. At the class level rather than individual cases, it usually is a factor.
  10. Methods of scoring. Again, presumably the same at the top 20 and bottom 20 schools, but check it out.
  11. Home environment other than poverty. Parental education levels? Single parent? Drug and alcohol abuse in the home? Foster homes? Homeless? Incarceration of a parent? Mental illness? Community support structures? All are possible contributing factors.  
  12. Are the low scores disproportionately concentrated in one gender?
  13. Chronic absenteeism. Probably.
  14. Discipline problems. Probably, though these tend to be either less prevalent or less well documented in elementary school than later.
  15. Tracking. Does not appear to be an issue in the top 20 by this single measure. Perhaps unintended tracking — children arrive at school with differences in early childhood education, cultural and home environment factors and inherited/nurtured learning skills. 
  16. “High stakes” testing. Again, clearly not in the top 20.
  17. Gang activity.
  18. Something else?

Though some additional data will need to be collected, much of the analysis can be done from available statistics. Again, the sample size is large enough to be statistically significant and concentrated in area and in a single school system management structure to eliminate those variables.

I ask the Virginia Department of Education to hire a systems engineering and analysis contractor to collect, structure and assess the data for Fairfax County elementary schools and provide the results to all Virginians to help justify VMPI and related changes.

Or not justify them. The changes appear to me to be at best shooting behind the rabbit. If VDOE doesn’t accept the challenge, we will know that they are scared of both the questions and the answers.

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11 responses to “Research the Huge Differences in SOL Math Scores Among Black Children”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    I love your 18 questions! Principals should answer these questions, but more importantly, have a plan for improvement that can be monitored for positive changes. This does not mean waiting until the end of the year to see the change in SOL scores. Trust me, public school divisions have systems like Power School to get this data easily. Fairfax May use something different, they usually do, but they have the data mining capacity. Have the capacity and using it to change results is exactly the problem.

  2. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Also would be interesting to compare the overall demographic diversity of the various schools, with my guess the poorest performances are in the schools that are more heavily minority. But it will be largely income and family involvement. A good set of questions and a PhD topic for somebody at least.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    And how do you propose to determine “whether VMPI… will address those differences in black student math education outcomes” unless VDOE implements the VPMI in those schools and waits 10-12 years?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I don’t propose to do it. I propose for VDOE to do it.

      First the data analysis that I have offered should be conducted. See if the preliminary data analysis shows VPMI is targeted to address the problems that the analysis identifies.

      Then, assuming it seems promising, conduct a four year pilot in those schools that follows classes from Kindergarten through 3rd grade to see if the promise is realized. At the end of the third grade can they multiply and achieve the other goals listed at

      There is every reason not to implement statewide an unproven overhaul of the math syllabus and the teacher demographics and implement a massive teacher reeducation program without results that show it can succeed.

  4. tmtfairfax Avatar

    Third grade is important as key skills must be mastered by its completion. And, oh, by the way, let’s not forget Joe Biden flunked third grade. Post it on a media company’s webpages and watch an editor have a massive coronary.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      You are absolutely right. Third grade is a true cornerstone. It is where kids are supposed to finish the journey to learn to read and to learn to multiply. In grade 4 and above, those same children are expected to read to learn and to multiply to do anything else in math.

      1. vicnicholls Avatar

        Its 3rd grade? Ye Gods.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Plot the top and bottom schools’ locations on a map. You’ll see that Fairfax County has some very wealthy and very poor areas, especially when analyzed in light of the high cost of living. At Hollin Meadows Elementary (bottom 20) 58% of the students get a free or reduced cost lunch. At Great Falls Elementary (top 20) the number is 3%.

    As best I can determine from your chart the Math Path is a mild dumbing down of the advanced math curriculum.

    I’m guessing:

    8th grade: Functions and algebra
    9th grade: Mathematical modeling
    10th grade: Spatial reasoning
    11th grade: Design modules (1/2 credit) and Analysis modules (1/2 credit)
    12th grade: Calculus

    High school geometry / trigonometry and pre-calculus are cut from year-long courses to half year courses. It’s hard to know what is meant by “mathematical modeling” and “spacial reasoning”.

    Looks like they want to start some concepts earlier with probability and statistics in the K-7 zone.

    All in all, this may be relatively minor but it’s very hard to see any advantage over the existing approach. Seems like adding some easier courses while diluting some of the more advanced work. My guess is that those students who get to calculus in 12th grade won’t be nearly as proficient in the subject as the kids are today.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I just want the VDOE to go into this with open eyes. Right now they seem committed to it without either statistical or pilot program inquiry. That reeks of fear of what they may find out. But Virginia’s schools are too important to let the dogmatic approaches of a few control the futures of many.

      VMPI advocates consider the elimination of tracking, CRT reeducation of teachers and demographic restructuring of the teacher cohort to be more important than the actual syllabus.

  6. […] sent him my column this morning that addressed VMPI and recommended a program of statistical analysis of 40 elementary […]

  7. Matt Hurt Avatar
    Matt Hurt

    If you could get your hands on the data, I would bet any amount of money that in the higher performing schools that students’ grades correlate better with their SOL proficiencies than the lower performing schools. More kids with A’s and B’s score pass advanced and kids with C’s pass at a higher rate than those kids in the lower performing schools. All this has to do with expectations. If we don’t believe the kid can achieve grade level skill mastery, then it’s inhumane to grade them on grade level skills, thus kids in lower performing schools tend to earn grades similar to students in higher performing schools. As long as the kids make the grades, nobody’s fussing, at least until the end of the year when the kids fail their SOL test. It is truly a travesty when significant percentages of kids in a school earn A’s and B’s for their final grades, yet can’t demonstrate basic proficiency on SOL tests, especially after the Board of Education has lowered the expectations for earning a proficient score.

    If we don’t start having similar expectations in Kindergarten (and each year thereafter), we’ll end up with disparate outcomes in high school. No amount of curriculum realignment will control for that.

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