SOL Test Scores Collapsed In 2020-21 School Year

by James A. Bacon

How bad are the Standards of Learning test results for the COVID-afflicted 2020-21 school year? They’re so bad that the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) press release announcing the results didn’t mention bare-bones numbers until the seventh paragraph, and even then it provided no basis for comparison to the previous year, 2018-19, in which the tests were given.

The results were so bad that the press release didn’t summarize the results in a table, as it has every year previously. Instead, it provided a link to VDOE’s “Build-A-Table” database for readers to figure out themselves.

The results were so bad the press release alluded to the widening racial/ethnic gap in pass rates but provided no numbers, as VDOE always has in the past.

The 2020-21 school year might well have seen the greatest regression in learning in Virginia history.

Rather, the VDOE press release amounted to a lengthy exercise in deflection and blame shifting. It attributed the dismal scores to the “extraordinary circumstances” of the COVID epidemic and the “disruptions to instruction” that followed from school closing across most of the state.

Rather than dwell on the past, Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane looked to the future. “What matters now is where we go from here, and we will use the data from the SOL’s to identify the unique needs of every learner as our schools resume in-person instruction for all students.”

Here’s what VDOE could not bring itself to tell Virginians: The pass rate for English Reading was down 8.3% percentage points. The pass rate for for English Writing, was down 6.7%. The rate for History/social studies was down 25,5 percentage points, for mathematics down a mind-bending 27.9 percentage points, and for science, down 21.4 percentage points. (The table above provides summary.)

I will delve into the sordid details in follow-up posts. For now, I’ll stick to telling VDOE’s spin. The 2020-21 school year was challenging, to be sure. Educators at the state and local levels were faced with tough choices: either limit in-school learning or run the risk that COVID infections would sweep through classrooms. In Virginia, most school districts, including the largest ones, chose to severely curtail in-school learning, and they persisted in doing so even when early evidence surfaced that online learning, while working for some students, was not working for others.

Here’s how VDOE explains how COVID-related shutdowns affected the SOL scores.

Pass rates reflect disruptions to instruction caused by the pandemic, decreased participation in state assessment programs, pandemic-related declines in enrollment, fewer retakes, and more flexible “opt-out” provisions for parents concerned about community spread of COVID-19. The SOL results also reflect disproportionate nationwide impacts across all student groups, especially African American students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and English learners. …

Students were required to take state assessments in school buildings to maintain testing security protocols. In a typical school year, participation in federally required tests is usually around 99%. In tested grades in 2021, 75.5% of students took the reading assessment, 78.7% took math, and 80% took science. …

Last year was not a normal school year for students and teachers, in Virginia or elsewhere, so making comparisons with prior years would be inappropriate.

“Virginia’s 2020-2021 SOL test scores tell us what we already knew — students need to be in the classroom without disruption to learn effectively,” Lane added. “The connections, structures, and supports our school communities provide are irreplaceable, and many students did not have access to in person instruction for the full academic year. We must now focus on unfinished learning and acceleration to mitigate the impact the pandemic has had on student results.”

While VDOE reported the data on SOL tests, it noted that accreditation ratings for schools will not be calculated. All schools will have the rating “accreditation waived,” as they did last year.

One factor VDOE did not mention was that the 2020-21 results show a decline in English SOL scores despite the fact that the State Board of Education had approved lower “cut” scores — the number of questions that students had to answer correctly in order to pass. Under normal circumstances, lower cut scores would increase the pass rate.

One note of caution: Because 20% to 25% of students did not take the SOLs, comparisons with 2020-21 should be made with caution. On the one hand, if higher-achieving kids opted out of the tests, the SOL scores could exaggerate how poorly Virginia students performed overall. By contrast, if lower-achieving kids opted out of the test, the SOL scores could understate the magnitude of the disaster. Bacon’s Rebellion will try to tease out the sample-bias effect as we dig deeper.

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25 responses to “SOL Test Scores Collapsed In 2020-21 School Year”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think you have to give VDOE credit for ensuring the tests were given and reporting the results. That’s transparency even if not all one might desire, it’s way better than saying that they’re not going to test nor report because they know it won’t be good.

    Though I don’t agree with the universal condemnation of virtual because there ARE outfits like K12-com and homeschooling and tutoring , I will go along with the premise that in-person needs to happen but I also point out the “problem” with mostly Conservative folks and masking and other measures to keep the schools open without massive outbreaks.

    Across Virginia we have folks going to school board meetings raising hell over the masks and actually threatening school board members, principals and teachers.

    How can we get back to in-person with this going on?

    Can’t blame this on VDOE… They’re honestly reporting results and admitting the problem but quite a few of our schools are actually being disrupted from trying to get the kids caught up.

    Makes me sometimes wonder what the real “concern” is and sounds more like what are the ways we can impugn public education.

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “The 2020-21 school year might well have seen the greatest regression in learning in Virginia history.”


    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      well… he did say “might well have”.. right?


      besides.. that’s obviously not what he wants to talk about….

  3. Let’s take the Oregon route!!!!!!!

    1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
      Baconator with extra cheese

      Everyone can achieve the standard when there is no standard.

  4. Yeah, 1958. Schools were segregated, which was bad, but I don’t recall seeing any evidence that either Blacks or Whites were losing ground. If you can show me some, and I’ll be happy to update my post to say that 2020-21 was the greatest regression in learning in 60 years.

      1. segregated yes….. but both races learned to read and write. Our science teacher at Warwick HS took us to Carver HS to see what a ‘lab’ should look like.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Are you saying the schools – even when separate – were “equal” in educational resources and academic outcomes?

          More specifically – do you think “reading and writing” really needs an SOL score as long as you can “read and write” ? Just have a low score that proves one can read and write at minimal levels?

          1. didn’t write those words….. WHS [white] went to CHS [black] because the WHS lab was so poorly equipped.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            okay… but does really have much to do with the fact that at one point most black schools were much less financially supported that most white schools and claimed to be “separate but equal” but in reality were not?

            what year are you talking about for your example? Are you old enough to remember segregated schools in Va?

          3. 1970s… and they were still ‘segregated’ for all intents and purposes.

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            okay, thanks.. I don’t doubt there are some counter examples , perhaps a new school but in general in that era, black folks did not get the best schools and resources at all.

            They suffered life-long/generational damage from the lack of a decent education, and that damaged continues for their kids if they are economically disadvantaged.

      2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        You can’t use that picture anymore. 20 plus postings is plenty.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          That many? geeze. I only try to post whenever JAB gets on his kick about the racial disparities in education in Va which, yes, is often.

          We need to acknowledge how we got to this point. It started back when those books and lies about history and treatment of blacks were being taught to kids.

          All this incessant blather about CRT – those books about Happy Slaves taught in schools named for racists and segregationists and Confederate heroes – THAT was the original Critical Race Theory but NOW we cannot teach the real history because that would make white kids feel bad for something they did not do.

          We do need to acknowledge the issues when discussing why there are continuing and stubborn racial disparities in academic performance.

          IMHO of course.

  5. Steve Gillispie Avatar
    Steve Gillispie

    BR Readers,
    Watch carefully the redirects and race-baiting the reflexive oppositionals, ankle-biters, and misinformed (if informed at all) partisans will use not to address the facts of the disaster of public school education throughout the Commonwealth.

  6. Statement from House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert:

    “This represents a catastrophic failure of one of the Commonwealth’s fundamental responsibilities — educating Virginia’s children. Teachers and students did their best to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, but the game was rigged against them from the start. Without full-time, in-person learning, most of the students never had a chance.

    “Worse, this didn’t have to happen. Republicans begged Democrats to open schools as soon as possible, but they voted against legislation that would have brought them back to school as soon as March. We tried over and over again to get parents the financial help they needed to pay for tutoring and other learning aids so kids wouldn’t fall behind. House Democrats blocked those efforts at every turn.

    “I hope my Democratic colleagues recognize that the last thing we should be doing right now is pursuing the far-left’s agenda to further politicize our curriculum, lower achievement standards, and eliminate advanced diplomas.

    “Our students already lost a year of learning and the damage could be irreparable. House Democrats must be held responsible. They failed our children.”

  7. I wonder if these people will admit that they failed miserably. Probably not.

    1. Steve Gillispie Avatar
      Steve Gillispie

      They believe they have succeeded! And they have.

      They are as likely to modify those beliefs as the fundamentalists are to entertain there are holes in their catechism.

      Think about the implications of that in a democracy where ultimately everyone gives up some of what they want to accommodate the beliefs and views of others.

  8. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    What would the pass rates be if those 20-25 percent who failed to take the test at all were counted as zeros? If they were included in the denominator of “total failed?” You are being kind not pressing that point. It would largely have been systems such as Richmond City with nobody in classrooms ever for the entire year.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      You’re joking. Think about it.

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