by Matt Hurt
Twenty years ago in Southwest Virginia, PreK-6-endorsed teachers would apply at a rate of 5 to 10 applicants for each posted position. Fully endorsed teachers would sometimes spend years in hourly teachers’ aides positions waiting for their turn to get their own classroom and a full-time teaching contract. Then, a little more than ten years ago, the supply began to dry up. Now the flood of teachers produced by our colleges has dwindled to a trickle. As it turns out, all of this occurred prior to the current political unpleasantness.
During the pandemic, teachers really began to burn out. JMU soon is expected to publish a paper which describes this phenomenon. My understanding is that researchers found that during COIVD teachers felt like they were not able to help their students be successful. They got into the field not to make millions of dollars annually, but to help kids. The pandemic and school closures made this much more difficult. Now that so many kids are so far behind, many teachers find it difficult to believe they’ll ever be able to help them get caught up.
This year, I have listened to a disturbing number of administrators talk about teachers leaving in the middle of the year. This certainly happened prior to this year, but it was a very uncommon event. Now, it is all too common. Continue reading
by Matt Hurt
On January 29, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an op-ed written by the patrons of HB319 and SB616 (The Virginia Literacy Acts). In this article, the legislators wrote that we must implement strategies adopted by other states if we wish to improve the reading abilities of our students.
While there is always room for improvement, one should always consult the data to determine to what degree our process should change in order to realize that improvement. If you’re at the bottom of the heap, you probably should change your approach dramatically. If you’re one of the top performers, maybe subtle tweaks are the more reasonable approach.
Consult the Data!
When it comes to early elementary reading, the most relevant dataset we have to compare our performance in Virginia to those of other states is the Reading 4 NAEP test. When we consider our results relative to the other 49 states, it appears that Virginia as a whole has performed admirably. Given that Virginia has achieved near the top very consistently, it is not apparent that we should make radical changes to our statewide reading program. Continue reading
by Matt Hurt
A few days ago. Delegate Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, and Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, submitted HB319 and SB616, both titled, “The Virginia Literacy Act.” These bills intend to codify instructional practices regarding the Science of Reading into Virginia law. While there are some widely acknowledged positives associated with the Science of Reading, it is not apparent to me that the bill will improve outcomes for Virginia students.
First, the reading wars have raged for more years than I have been alive. Initially the warring factions were the “whole language” zealots versus the phonics militants. Eventually the supporters of phonics won the battle. Soon thereafter, a rift emerged among the phonics camp about how much of the reading instruction should be straight phonics versus a blend of phonics and other activities, such as writing, word study, and etc.
Word count limits the ability of this essay to further investigate the reading wars, but suffice it to say that the smart money says these wars will rage long after I’m dead. While some educators may welcome the science-of-reading mandates, others will find them a bitter pill to swallow. Folks tend to spit out things they find bitter. Given our recent experience with the Critical Race Theory fury, it seems that mandating controversial things may not be a wise move, either practically or politically. Continue reading
This is the ninth in a series of articles about Virginia’s Standard of Learning assessments.
by Matt Hurt
A measure that has gained some credibility among psychologists is the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). IQ scores tell us nothing about someone’s intrinsic worth as a human being or their rights to equal justice under the law. On the other hand, most folks would agree that IQ does measure something real. Not every human being is capable of becoming a brain surgeon.
Whatever your opinions about the validity and usefulness of the IQ metric, it is important when thinking about educational policy in Virginia to understand that it does not measure the same thing as the state’s Standards of Learning (SOLs). SOLs are “criterion referenced” tests — that is, they measure how well students have mastered skills and content taught in schools, not their capacity to learn.
There is no question that academically gifted students find it easier to master the skills assessed by the SOL tests than less gifted students do. Yet it has been demonstrated repeatedly that less academically capable students still can acquire the skills they need to be classified as proficient and advance to the next grade level. Continue reading
This is the eighth in a series of articles exploring Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessment.
by Matt Hurt
The General Assembly and the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) have loads of ideas of how to make Virginia’s schools better. The deluge of new initiatives in recent years, however, has outpaced the capacity of many school divisions to handle them. Many unintended consequences ensue.
An organization can do one or two things well, or many things poorly. This truism applies especially to smaller school divisions with smaller administrative staffs to carry out the new tasks.
For context, let us consider the responsibilities of Dr. Marcia Shortt, an administrator in the Wise County public school system. Shortt’s responsibilities include the following: Elementary education, Middle School education, federal programs, personnel, and several others. Three others in the central office help her. They include a coordinator of federal programs, a federal programs clerk, and a personnel manager (who also serves as the superintendent’s administrative assistant and the Clerk of the Board). The administrative costs associated with federal programs are extremely high due to compliance issues and the bureaucratic process for getting reimbursements for federal funds, among other reasons. Continue reading
This is the seventh in a series about Virginia’s Standards of Learning educational assessments.
by Matt Hurt
Widespread shutdowns of Virginia’s public schools during the COVID-19 epidemic last year resulted in a significant loss of instructional hours. To make up for lost ground, teachers need to spend as much time as possible with their students. Unfortunately, a new measure enacted with the best of intentions will take students and teachers out of the classroom for two more rounds of assessments, one in the fall and one in the winter.
While the extra tests might be suitable for some school districts, local officials should be allowed to decide whether the assessments best meet the needs of their students.
In 2017 the Virginia Board of Education implemented new criteria for the Standards of Accreditation, which determine if schools are performing up to snuff. Students who failed their SOL tests but demonstrated sufficient “growth” from the previous year counted the same for accreditation purposes as a student who passed his or her SOLs in the accreditation calculation. Under the growth system, students who failed a 3rd grade SOL test would be given four years to catch up and reach proficiency by the 7th grade — as long as they demonstrated progress toward that goal each year. Continue reading
This is the sixth in a series about Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.
by Matt Hurt
Persistent gaps in educational proficiency for important subgroups — minorities, the economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, English language learners — have long preoccupied Virginia educators. One thing we have learned in our Comprehensive Instructional Program consortium regarding student outcomes is that when teachers, schools, and divisions set higher expectations, performance improves.
The Virginia Board of Education adopted more rigorous standards and more rigorous SOL tests, which were implemented in math and reading in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The SOL pass rates dropped precipitously in those years, but began to rebound immediately in math. The reading proficiency rates declined the second year, and then improved with the advent of retesting students in grades 3-8 who narrowly failed their SOL tests in 2015. High school students had the opportunity to retake tests years earlier. Continue reading
This is fifth in a series of articles about Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.
By Matt Hurt
In 2011 the Virginia Board of Education added a new criteria, Standard 7 Student Academic Progress, for evaluating teachers and administrators. Previously, 100% of the criteria used to evaluate educators had consisted of inputs — lesson delivery, lesson planning, school improvement planning, etc. — with no consideration of student outcomes. A teacher who arrived on time, delivered a captivating lesson during the principal’s classroom observation, and submitted impeccable lesson plans each week could receive an exemplary evaluation — even if his or her students failed to pass a minimum-competency test of grade-level standards, the Standards of Learning (SOLs), at the end of the year. Standard 7 changed the game by giving 40% weight to student outcomes.
Even with the new measure of student outcomes, evaluations did not always correlate to student outcomes. Many divisions implemented a pre-test/post-test process, which was intended to measure student progress over the course of the year. The pre-test, consisting of content that would be covered during the year, was administered at the beginning of the year and the post-test at the end. As one would expect, students always performed better after being exposed to the material than after. Most divisions considered this improvement a sign of student growth.
The problem with the pre-test/post-test scheme is obvious — students could “show progress” but still fail to meet the standards required to advance to the next grade. An analysis of the relationship between teacher ratings and SOL outcomes found in one division, for instance, that 45% of the teachers who had exemplary evaluation ratings and 40% with proficient ratings had fewer students passing the SOL test than is required for the school to be accredited (75% in English and 70% in other core areas). Continue reading
Table 1: 2021 In-Person Instructional Hours (and percentage of 990-hour standard) by Virginia educational region.
This is the fourth in a series of articles discussing Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.
by Matt Hurt
The Code of Virginia requires school divisions to provide students a minimum of 990 hours of instruction yearly. During the COVID-19 epidemic, the Virginia Department of Education waived that standard, allowing local school districts to offer remote learning and hybrid remote/in-person alternatives as they found expedient. Local practices varied widely.
Earlier this year VDOE surveyed public school divisions to determine the number of in-person instructional hours offered during the academic year. The table above displays the results collected, broken down by region, race (Blacks and Whites only), and by disability status.
Some broad conclusions emerge from this data.
- Statewide, only 40% of students experienced full in-person instruction. (No student experienced a full school year. Even divisions that offered in-person five days per week did so on an abbreviated school day.)
- Southwest Virginia schools provided the most in-person learning (60%), and Northern Virginia schools the least (34.7%).
- Statewide, Black students experienced far less in-person learning (338 hours on average) than Whites (439 hours) — a gap of more than 100 hours. Continue reading
This is third in a series of articles about Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.
by Matt Hurt
Teachers play a central role in the education of our students. Therefore, it is important to identify the characteristics of effective teachers, especially those who demonstrate success at educating at-risk students.
Prior to the COVID epidemic, the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP), an independent consortium of mostly rural school systems, held fall meetings in which teachers shared resources and strategies, vented to peers, cried on each other’s shoulders, and generally supported one another. While some detractors believe that teaching is a pie job, nothing can be further from the truth. If teaching were easy, there would be no teacher shortage. Education is a people business, and people are messy. Teachers must effectively deal with problems their students bring into class before they can make sure their students attain the required skills. They must also deal with a host of organizational and school culture problems.
In these fall meetings, the teachers most successful at helping at-risk students, whether those who had disabilities or were economically disadvantaged, were called out in front of the group and asked how they helped their kids pass the SOLs. In every instance, they would relate three things in common — curriculum alignment, relationships, and expectations. Continue reading
This is the second in a series examining Virginia’s Standards of Learning.
by Matt Hurt
In the 2013-2014 school year school superintendents in Virginia’s Region VII, a region encompassing Southwest Virginia, began to focus on declining student pass rates during their monthly regional meetings. The Virginia Board of Education had recently adopted more rigorous Standards of Learning in Math and Reading and implemented much more difficult Technology Enhanced Items on those new SOL tests.
School board budgets had been slashed since the Great Recession of 2008. Many central office positions had been merged through reduction in staff, and those who were left had to attend to the administrative requirements of state and federal mandates. Therefore, the superintendents decided to pool their resources and their talents by creating a consortium, the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP).
The mission of the CIP was simple: to improve student outcomes as measured primarily by Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests. Initially, data was analyzed to determine which division was the most successful on each SOL test. The most successful teachers of the most at-risk students in that division (as determined by SOL results) were recruited, and they spent the 2014-2015 school year sharing their pacing guides, instructional materials, and assessments, all of which were posted online for others to use. During the first year of implementation (2015-2016), the divisions that used the common pacing guides and common assessments realized greater gains in reading, writing, math, science, and history SOL tests than any other region in the state. Continue reading
This is the first of a series of four articles explaining Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments, showcasing school districts have demonstrated success despite significant challenges, providing context for the 2021 assessment results, and expressing concerns about recent General Assembly and Board of Education actions that could have significant negative unintended consequences. Given the crucial necessity of producing well-educated graduates, it is vitally important that Virginia citizens understand how the assessments work. — Matt Hurt
Virginia has administered Standards of Learning (SOL) assessments for more than twenty years. Over that period, many changes have taken place through actions of the General Assembly and the Virginia Board of Education. According to the Virginia Department of Education, the purpose of SOL testing is to “inform parents and communities about whether students — as individuals and collectively — are meeting the commonwealth’s expectations for achievement in English, mathematics, science and history. SOL tests allow the state Board of Education to identify schools that need assistance and support. The assessments also provide an objective means for measuring achievement gaps between student subgroups and for determining the progress of schools, divisions and the state toward closing these gaps.”
The SOL tests measure skills that are foundational to students’ success in future academic endeavors. I have yet to find anyone that could successfully argue these skills are not valuable or that student success in these skills is not desired. If students cannot read, interpret, and understand written text, or reason through mathematical concepts, they will not be able to access higher level courses and will be less well prepared for post-secondary education. Continue reading