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by Matt Hurt
Over the last several years, it has become widely accepted that trust in our institutions has declined. Ultra-tribalism has infected almost every aspect of public discourse, which has certainly enriched the war chests of our politicians on both sides of the aisle. On April 20, 2023, the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) provided a wonderful example of how this trend can be reversed.
The VBOE has been in the process of updating Virginia’s history Standards of Learning for over two years. Unfortunately, history is the subject which has become targeted by different political/ideological factions. Some argued that certain versions of the standards were intended to promote a specific ideology. Others argued that other versions attempted to whitewash history. This work has drawn fire from both progressives and conservatives, and it is doubtful that either side will be satisfied with the end result. Continue reading →
by Matt Hurt
The teacher vacancy rate in the Commonwealth has become such a problem that the Virginia Department of Education created a database to track this problem. The Staffing and Vacancy Report found on the Education Workforce Data & Reports page of the VDOE website displays unfilled Virginia educator positions at the state, region, division, and school levels as of October of each year.
This data was first published in 2021 and reported that approximately 3% percent of Virginia’s teaching positions were vacant at that time. Historically, few hires are made after the beginning of the school year, as all willing and eligible potential teachers have already been hired by that point. Anecdotally, I am aware of and have heard many more instances of teachers leaving throughout the year, whereas in the past most would wait until summer to leave the profession.
When one compares the October 2021 teacher vacancy rates to the 2022 Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates at the division level, that seemingly insignificant teacher vacancy rate statistically accounted for 26% of the variability in division SOL pass rates that year. In October 2022, the teacher vacancy rate across Virginia increased 26% percent to almost a 4% teacher vacancy rate. Given this increase, it is reasonable to believe that this problem will more significantly and negatively impact student outcomes this year than last.
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by Matt Hurt
For any organization to be successful, there must be clearly defined goals based on the desired outcome. The goals must be measurable, and the measure(s) of progress must also be defined. The greater the focus is maintained on those goals, the more likely the organization will attain them.
Virginia’s educators are at a disadvantage in that the goals (identified as priorities) laid out in the Board of Education’s Comprehensive Plan do not identify student outcome targets. The mission adopted by the Board (page 5) mentions the improvement of student achievement, but how much improvement is considered sufficient is not defined anywhere in the document. This document also does not specify any measures of student achievement that could be used to determine whether or not the board is accomplishing its mission.
The lack of adopted student outcome goals and measures could be a significant factor in the declines in student achievement in the past five or so years. Much has been written about the recent and significant decline in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in 2022, but student outcomes as measured by SOL tests were generally in decline prior to the pandemic. The only SOL scores that improved were in math, and then only because the Board of Education significantly lowered cut scores with the newest SOL test in 2019, which had the effect of making the new tests easier to pass.
There have been a number of decisions made by the Board in recent years that have been inconsistent with practices which improve student outcomes. These decisions in effect lowered the expectations for Virginia’s students and educators. Rarely do outcomes improve when expectations are lowered. For example, the degree to which student outcomes were calculated into teacher and administrator evaluations was decreased from 40 percent of the evaluation to no less than 10 percent in 2019. Also, that same year, the Board lowered the SOL cut scores in math, which effectively lowered the expectations in that subject. Two years later, the Board similarly lowered the cut scores in reading.
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by Matt Hurt
Since the Region VII superintendents initiated the Comprehensive Instructional Program in 2014, we have annually identified our top five most successful teachers of our most at-risk students in each SOL-tested course. In their classes, at least 50 percent of students were economically disadvantaged, and they also had a significant number of students with disabilities. Despite that, their SOL pass rates were very high, even higher than many teachers’ pass rates who had few economically disadvantaged students and no students with disabilities. When asked, all of these teachers have conveyed a common theme: they expected their students to pass the SOL test, and the teacher believed it was his/her job to ensure that happened.
Similarly, we find the theme of high expectations rampant in our most successful schools and divisions in our high poverty areas. For example, Wise County and Norton City were the two divisions that outperformed the relationship between poverty rates and SOL performance in 2022 (as well as several years prior). This relationship accounted for 30 percent of the variation in overall SOL scores among all 132 divisions that year. The poverty rate in these two divisions is greater than approximately 90 percent of other school divisions in the state, and they are also typically the least-well-funded two divisions in Virginia when considering overall per-pupil funding. Despite those challenges, these two divisions outperformed 95 percent of all other divisions in 2022.
2022 Overall Division Pass Rates Compared to Federal Poverty Rates
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by Matt Hurt
There have always been students who have evidenced a year or more delay in their independent working ability. Unfortunately, our educational response to the pandemic of closing schools and offering virtual instruction has made this problem significantly worse (more on that here). Today there are significantly more students who are a year or more behind in their ability to work on grade level skills than before 2020.
The term “learning loss” has been used to describe the situation caused by our educational response to the pandemic. It seems that this term is an incorrect characterization of our current situation. To have lost something, one first must have had it. During the closures and subsequent offerings of virtual instruction many kids did not learn what they should have during that time. Some kids regularly participated in virtual instruction and they learned most of what they were taught. Some kids rarely if ever participated in virtual instruction and therefore didn’t learn what was expected. Unfortunately, the kids who were in the latter group tended to make up a significant part of our economically disadvantaged kids. This group typically has less structure in their homes to support these efforts.
For the purpose of this essay, everything discussed will be limited to the content areas of English and math. These skills (Standards of Learning or SOLs) are very well sequenced from Kindergarten through high school in such a manner that if students learn the skills from the previous grade, they have all of the prerequisites necessary for success in the following grade. These skills definitely build upon what was taught in previous grade levels, and any gaps in learning that a student has will result in negative consequences later on.
To understand the instructional process, we must first understand that there are a variety of skills that a student must master to be able to independently work on a given grade level. If a student has significant gaps in skill attainment, he or she will assess to be working on a lower grade level than the current grade placement. That does not necessarily mean that the student has learned nothing from the previous grade, but is missing some key aspects.
For example, SOL 2.6b requires students in second grade to determine the sums and differences of two numbers of no more than two digits. This is the first year students are expected to regroup, i.e. borrow for subtraction and carry numbers while adding. In third grade, SOL 3.3a requires kids to determine the sums and differences of two numbers of up to four digits. If the student did not master SOL 2.6b in second grade, he or she does not have the prerequisites to learn SOL 3.3a in third grade. The student may or may not have learned all other second grade skills. It is unlikely that any third grade student would have mastered no second grade skills unless they were simply not taught the content. Continue reading →
by Matt Hurt
Twenty five years ago, the demand for teaching positions was not sufficient to supply the employment needs of newly-minted teachers. It was common in many divisions for teachers to serve for at least a year or two in an hourly instructional aide position before finally earning the coveted teaching contract. For whatever reasons, the teacher pipeline has dwindled to a trickle, and divisions can no longer be as particular when hiring teachers. If the candidate has a pulse, passes the background check, and has a provisional license (or at least close to it), they’re handed a contract. In far too many instances, divisions cannot find enough folks who meet these basic minimum qualifications to fill all of their vacant positions.
Many prerequisites must be in place to ensure positive student outcomes, not least of which is a teacher in the classroom. As of October 2021, 2.83% of teaching positions in Virginia remained unfilled, according to statistics conveyed to the Board of Education on September 15, 2022. The image below was shown to illustrate how the unfilled teacher positions were distributed throughout the state.
The Virginia Department of Education recently launched a new data tool (Staffing and Vacancy Report Build-A-Table) which allows anyone to view the number of positions as well as the number of positions that were unfilled at the time the data were collected. This tool should prove useful to track this problem over time, as well as to measure the impacts that this problem has on student outcomes.
Based on the statistics provided in the staffing and vacancy dataset as well as the SOL Build-A-Table data from 2022, there was a significant, negative relationship between those statistics. The rate of teacher vacancies accounted for 22% of the variance in SOL pass rates among the divisions in Virginia in 2022. This was greater than the relationships that many folks typically think impact scores the most, such as economically disadvantaged enrollment (18%), black student enrollment (17%), and white student enrollment (19%- positive correlation). Continue reading →
by Matt Hurt
Virginia’s system for accrediting public K-12 schools has engendered some concern since the release of school accreditation data on September 19. While students exhibited lower proficiency during the 2022 school year than in 2019, as measured by Standards of Learning test scores, the percentage of schools meeting the requirements for full accreditation barely budged.
Table 1 below demonstrates the rates at which Virginia schools obtained a Level 1 rating (the highest available in our accreditation system) for each of the key metrics. Table 2 below displays the overall pass rates in Virginia for each of those content areas. (The English accreditation indicator is a composite of reading and writing results.)
Note that the English and math SOL pass rates dropped from 2019 to 2022, but Virginia schools didn’t realize similar declines in accreditation ratings. English (a composite of reading and writing) pass rates fell 4.27% but schools awarded the Level One accreditation rating increased 0.83%. Math SOL pass rates plummeted 15.56% but schools slid only 0.88%.
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by Matt Hurt
In a September 14th post, Jim Sherlock referenced some data points that were collected during the pandemic. Specifically he brought up the topics of chronic absenteeism and how the graduation rate didn’t seem to correlate with SOL scores. My intent here is not to refute any specifics; it is to inform readers that there were a variety of aspects that impacted the quality of data that we collected during that time.
First of all, to say that the 2020-21 school year was chaotic is the understatement of the century. Most school divisions began the year in a virtual setting. As the year wore on, students were allowed to come into the school at varying rates. Also during that year, families were ubiquitously allowed to decide whether their students would participate in person, given that was an option.
Many families changed their mind multiple times throughout the year. This by itself caused a great deal of chaos, and it was nearly impossible to accurately reflect each student’s method of instruction during that time period. Try to imagine how this worked out in schools. Johnny’s family chose to have him attend school in person. Then the COVID infection rates in the community increased and Johnny’s family decided that he needed to participate virtually. How hard is it to believe that many kids were marked absent incorrectly when they should have been marked as attending virtually? Continue reading →
Matt Hurt, director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program coalition of rural school districts, provided detailed feedback on a recent post, “School Districts’ COVID Recovery Varied Widely.” His comments contribute significantly to the discussion of the impact of COVID school closures in 2020-21 on Standards of Learning test scores in 2021-22, so, I republish them with minor modifications here. — JAB
by Matt Hurt
According to my calculations, 47% of the variance among overall division pass rate differences in 2021 was due to the amount of in-person instruction offered combined with the poverty rate of the division.
When I discussed this with our teachers and administrators, it seemed to explain a lot. The way that they put it, kids of affluent parents tended to have the supports in the home to make sure the kids attended to their work when they were participating in virtual instruction. Kids who live in poverty were much less likely to have anyone standing over them making them do their work. Given this situation, these kids found much more engaging activities in which to invest their time than school work. I suspect that the amount of in-person instruction in 2021 did affect the 2022 outcomes, but I haven’t had the time to calculate that yet. Continue reading →
by Matt Hurt
Much controversy surrounded Superintendent Jillian Balow’s report (Our Commitment to Virginians) in May 2022. While I disagree with a few of the details included in the report, I agree with (and have written about) many of the main concerns that were presented. If we want to have the best educational program in the country, we need to increase expectations and accountability. Luckily, Virginia laid a solid educational foundation in the 1990s which provides the basis which can help us produce the most successful students in the country.
First, Virginia developed (and continues to update) a set of grade-level standards which ensured a continuum of skill attainment from year to year. These standards were sequenced to build upon prerequisite skills from the prior year, are very well aligned vertically, and the skills expectations in each grade are reasonable for the vast majority of students to master. While some may argue that this system might hold some students back from progressing at a quicker rate, there is nothing in the regulations which states that schools can’t accelerate students through this progression.
Second, Virginia has supplied educators with curricular documents (curriculum frameworks) which fully communicate exactly what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do. Continue reading →
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 →