More Test Score Sleight-of-Hand

As expected, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has responded to the latest ACT college-entrance exam results with glowing comparisons between Virginia high school test takers and their peers in other states.

“The percentage of 2018 graduating seniors in Virginia public high schools who met the ACT’s college-readiness benchmark in each content area was 22 or more points higher than the percentages for public graduates nationwide,” stated the VDOE press release.

“The commonwealth’s public school students achieved an average composite score of 23.8 on the ACT, compared with 20.4 for public graduates nationwide,” the press release added. “Public school students accounted for 83 of the 95 Virginia students who achieved perfect scores on the test.”

Wow! If Virginia students are that much smarter than everyone else, that must mean Virginia schools are doing a fantastic job! … Right?

There is less to these comparisons than meets the eye. Click here to view average ACT scores by state graduating class in 2018. As ACT warns at the top of the table: “The best practice is to compare states where the same or similar percentages of graduates were tested (e.g, Alabama 100% and South Carolina 100%; or Kansas 71% and Arizona 66%).”

In 17 states 100% of high school graduates took the tests. Fifty-five percent took the exams nationally. And Virginia? Well, in Virginia only 24% partook. So, while it may be true that nearly twice as many Virginia grads are taking the exams as ten years ago, as Staples said, the percentage in the Old Dominion is less than half the 55% national average. Only in seven states does a smaller percentage participate.

Thus, while the composite score of 23.9 for Virginia students may look good in comparison to (to pick a state) 20.2 for Kentucky, bear in mind that every Kentucky student took the exams while only one in four Virginia students did. When participation is so discretionary, it is safe to assume that the Virginia test-takers are a highly self-selected group —  more serious about going to college, better prepared academically, and more likely to earn high ACT scores.

For a meaningful comparison, let’s see how Virginia stacks up against other states where roughly the same percentage of high school grads took the ACT exams.

Er… Not so great. New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Michigan all outperformed Virginia. In each of those states, students are somewhat better prepared for college than Virginia students.

Surely, VDOE knows this. But the Department chose not to provide this context in its press release. Instead, Virginians are fed happy talk about what a great job their schools are doing.

Bacon’s law of public policy: You cannot make things better if you are disconnected from reality.

Bacon’s bottom line: VDOE’s press release strongly suggests that the VDOE’s top brass is disconnected from reality. Alternatively, if VDOE isn’t disconnected from reality, it is peddling happy talk that keeps Virginia lawmakers and the public disconnected from reality. This is no way to achieve the goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the country.

Update: A previous version of this post mistakenly included quotes and graphs from last year’s VDOE press release. I have deleted them and replaced them with quotes and charts from this year’s release.

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8 responses to “More Test Score Sleight-of-Hand”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This is an obviously highly deceitful report issued by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), and it is compounded by the Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples who said “The latest results continue a long-term trend of higher achievement and increasingly well-prepared graduates.”

    This report and its supporting statement are deceitful on their face for the reasons Jim Bacon stated in his post. They are also plainly misleading by reason of the fact that Virginia’s business growth is stalling out because Virginia businesses cannot find anywhere near enough qualified workers in the state to meet the exploding demand.

    Hence the lack of qualified workers in the state is throttling businesses growth and prosperity throughout Virginia. This is reaching crisis proportions as its deleterious effects are now rippling throughout society, harming everything they touch, jobs, family formation, retail growth, tax base, you name it.

    And what do these public employees do about this crisis? They hide the problem. Issuing misleading statements to hide those problems, they prevent the solutions to the very problems they are being paid by taxpayers to fix. This needs to change. The taxpayers need public employees who fix problems, not public employees who hide things so as to do the state’s taxpayers, and their children, ever greater harm in whole varieties of ways.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Apparently, the earlier reference in Jim’s post to Mr. Staples was misplaced, so I remove my comment in that regard too. Now that statement has been replaced by “The percentage of 2018 graduating seniors in Virginia public high schools who met the ACT’s college-readiness benchmark in each content area was 22 or more points higher than the percentages for public graduates nationwide,” stated the VDOE press release.”

      Again this statement, in my view, is highly misleading, indeed deceitful, as it compares apples to oranges to gain an untrue advantage, as Jim’s post explains. Hiding and misstating problems, thus fooling the public, including the taxpayers and parents of Virginia students, is not the way Virginia can solve its problems. And it is a surefire way of destroying citizens’ trust in their state government, and their trust in their public servants in public education.

      This has got to stop. Honest and efficient government requires it. Virginia’s citizens should demand no less.

  2. Bacon’s law of public policy: You cannot make things better if you are disconnected from reality.

    That is Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, etc. so I’m not surprised.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think they are disconnected. They’re doing their jobs which is to put the best face possible on things like this!

    To be honest about the rigor of Virginia’s academics as well as the testing and accountability – there are more than a few people who are OPPOSED to the SOLs and who claim they put undue stress on students and make teachers “teach to the test”… etc, etc… ad Infinitum!

    I’m not at all convinced if VDOE toughened standards that they’rd not be open rebellion from parents, teachers and the Schools!

    Here’s something else Jim B could do with his newfound handy dandy data crunching software… show the SOL and ACT scores of the kids in Va – who do NOT get free & reduced.

    Then do it for a county like Fairfax or Henrico… on an individual school basis…

    But heckfire – anyone who watches Blue Bloods on TV knows the second most important person in the Police Commissioners HQ – it’s their PR guy who knows a zillion ways to put lipstick on a pig (pun not intended).

  4. Jim, Did you send this to the T-D?

    1. No, did I miss something? (I was out of town this weekend.)

        1. Yes, I saw that. I’ll try to get to it later this morning.

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