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.