Schrödinger’s Schools? Are Virginia’s Schools Good Or Not? Yes.

by Andrew Rotherham

In the tiresome debate about our schools, here in Virginia and nationally, questions like “Are schools as good/bad as people say?” dominate.

These are the wrong kind of questions.

The big story of American education is variance — in everything from funding to outcomes. School performance is mixed overall and here in Virginia. That’s why Virginia at once has schools that are the envy of the world, and also fewer than one in five Virginia low-income and/or Black 8th-graders are proficient on the highly-regarded NAEP assessment and there are big gaps on our state assessments and a lot of underperformance. Often the schools producing those disparate outcomes are in close quarters to one another.

Yesterday, Virginia released school accreditation ratings based on the most recent student achievement data. Because Virginia doesn’t have any sort of accountability system or much in the way of school choice, these ratings take on a lot of substantive and political weight. They also pretty consistently lead to a lot of confusion. This year is no exception. The new rankings show that almost all Virginia schools are accredited and doing OK, even though we know there were problems before the pandemic — and that the pandemic was a disaster for a lot of kids.

So a lot of folks are chirping that this must be because things are OK even though the governor somehow doesn’t want them to be and is cooking up a crisis. That’s a now long-running debate. On a few levels this makes no sense, including the most obvious one: we’ve seen the most recent results on Virginia’s own assessments: 2021-2022 SOL results were released last month. And other data confirms the problems. You have a three-fold increase in students showing growth instead of proficiency and 4x in math.

Look, an accreditation system that produces just a three-point decline in the number of schools accredited when the bottom has basically fallen out on student achievement in many places is a system without face validity. Virginians deserve better. The goal is obviously not to manufacture a certain number of schools doing well or not doing well. It’s just that we* should have a system that better reflects reality and that is more transparent for parents.

If you think this is just a Youngkin thing, here’s The Washington Post editorial board in 2022 and in 2017. Here’s the invaluable Matt Hurt with more.

The issue here is not re-litigating pandemic choices. This was a pre-pandemic issue, too. Rather, it’s problems with features of how the accreditation system works. For instance, growth is counted as proficiency, which disadvantages kids; the system that is intended to be earned autonomy for high-performing schools (a good thing) ends up creating loopholes; and it’s confusing as hell for parents and educators. It doesn’t really include school divisions who actually oversee and are responsible for the schools. There is more. We also have a problem with what a passing student test even means – we need more transparency about cut scores on various tests so parents can appreciate what passing means in terms of what children know and do.

For instance, I don’t think most parents appreciate this reality in all the happy talk:

Here’s a good analysis of how accreditation works prepared by the team at the Virginia Department of Education.

The Governor asked the State Board of Education to revise the accreditation system. He’s right to do so, and we should. It’s too complicated for parents to understand and it’s not producing results that square with reality. I know there are strong feelings about the governor, but reasonable people should not find a lot to argue with here in terms of the need for changes. We can do better. Governor Youngkin yesterday:


Andrew Rotherham serves on the Virginia Board of Education. This column has been republished with permission from blog Eduwonk.


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16 responses to “Schrödinger’s Schools? Are Virginia’s Schools Good Or Not? Yes.”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Glad your back Mr Rotherham!

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Nature Deals Steve a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card…

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    But, but, Youngkin didn’t run on variations. He ran on the position that the sky was falling. Hey! I thought he looked familiar!

    Steve would be proud! The Youngkin administration is taking a lesson from the CO2 blamers. Say the atmosphere is warming and if doesn’t, blame the instruments.

    Of course, if it does show warming, then Steve will blame the instruments.


    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Depends upon who you value most, the successful kids or those who the Virginia public school system predictably fails.

      It is possible, even necessary, to value both equally.

      It is the very predictability that is the issue. That isn’t a one kid at a time issue, it is a systematic one,

      Progressives want to declare failing kids successful by changing the standards.

      True conservatives want those kids to succeed by traditional standards that predict success in society.

      Success Academies have proven for nearly two decades that traditionally predictable student failures by class and race can achieve the heights of traditionally measured success as students.

      Everything else is political posturing.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        “Progressives want to declare failing kids successful by changing the standards.”

        Youngkin wants to change the standards. He’s a progressive?

        Weren’t the current standards developed over the 2016 to 2018 period in conjunction with Secretary DeVos? Is she a progressive?

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        How do Success Academy kids do on NAEP?

  4. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    Exactly. We are privileged that you are on the Board of Education.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” and also fewer than one in five Virginia low-income and/or Black 8th-graders are proficient on the highly-regarded NAEP assessment ”

    I did not realize that NAEP broke the scores down by demographics.

    I went to the NAEP link but was not able to find that demographic breakdown by score.

    I saw this:

    but not scores for each demographic.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      I dunno, Larry. The physical evidence and the measurements are tad contrdictory.

      The older and whiter you are, the more likely you are to support and believe Trump; younger and browner, and the less likely. Good indication intelligence is continuing to evolve and that the education system is working despite test scores.

      It ain’t 60 to 80-year old white guys creating the world anymore. If they were, we’d be using dialup modems and driving Pintos.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Well.. I’m not seeing NAEP scoring broken down by demographics… maybe I’m just not seeing it and it’s there.

        As far as old white guys and public education , their views, their contributions to good change, etc… call
        me a “skeptic”, perhaps a “denier”.

        Sherlock, a military man who says he’s been “analyzing” public education for 15 years does not impress me with his observations and recommendations to be honest. He’s thoughtful enough about the issues but he just goes off the rails on how to improve because his stock answer is Success Academies and not much else to be honest.

        Not every kid get accepted into Success and not every kid accepted into Success succeeds and so those kids stay behind in public schools and even if Success expanded, not all kids would be accepted nor all of them succeed. On top of that, we have nowhere near the amount of required metrics for Success that is required of public schools, nor is it the same.

        I’d like to hear more about other voucher schools and their results but that info is largely no where to be found even though the “answer”
        is more voucher schools.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Food. Food is the answer. Feed every public school kid two taxpayer funded meals. Yeah, you can catch a fish with bright and shiny lures, but a minnow or a worm works much better.

          Lure them in with food. Once they’re there, entertain them with math.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            That and things that make learning “fun” for the little ones. That’s the name of the game in the early grades.

            Kids toys at that age are all about FUN, and much of it learning disguised as FUN.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Just to point out again – we know these data and issues BECAUSE we do collect the data. We know the good, bad and ugly because the govt requires that we know – for public schools.

    We don’t know near as much for the schools that critics claim should be “choice” schools , very little data and most of those schools do not specialize in ED kids.

    We also don’t know about other states which Virginia tops most of, low cut scores and low scoring schools and all.

    So this is the problem for the critics, “reformers” and Youngkin.

    We have some of the top scoring schools in the nation that don’t need “fixing” so the “fixing” needs to be targeted unless we want to mess with the schools that don’t need messing with to start with.

    And we’re not going to “fix” it with “choice” schools IMO especially if the “choice” schools don’t want the ED kids but instead the easier-to-teach higher scoring kids – de-facto “academies” for those who don’t need it while those who do, are not wanted because they know they’re going to have some of the same problems that public schools have with these kids – and their parents.

    The example of “Success Academies” never really acknowledges that they have different, stricter rules and kids get booted if they can’t or won’t meet those rules. In other words, they don’t have to educate the kids that public schools must so it’s really a dodge.

    So, the guy that is going to mess with the public school machinery better have some idea of what he is doing IMO.

    And I would WELCOME a competent approach that works and is proven effective – perhaps starting with the LAB schools because we KNOW very few public schools really have great success at teaching the ED demographic.

    so – we’re talking-the-talk and we await the walking-the-walk.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Is it observable? Measurable? Controllable? Necessary? Society can function quite well with nearly 30% undereducated. The Republicans are proof.

      Youngkin is NOT going to mess with anything. Not this far out from Spring 2024. It could go badly.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Is it observable? Measurable? Controllable? Necessary? Society can function quite well with nearly 30% undereducated. The Republicans are proof.

      Youngkin is NOT going to mess with anything. Not this far out from Spring 2024. It could go badly.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t need convincing that Virginia has problems with some schools and the ED Demographic. We are not alone nor unique in this among the states but I support both recognition of the problem as Youngkin/VDOE are doing but I also want to hear what they want to do about it. Just pointing it out in graphic details without weighing in on a plan is more political than real.

    He had no trouble weighing in on divisive concepts and transgender so I’m expecting more on his response to this.

    I don’t entirely buy the “honesty gap”. It’s not the same measure as SOLs and less than 50% of kids in all states meet the NAEP proficiency standard.

    They can start by laying out how they want to measure accreditation as well as what they want to do with respect to
    dealing with schools that don’t meet accreditation.

    In other words, enough talk about the issues – let’s hear a plan.

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