The Honesty Gap: Yes, Virginia, There Is a Problem

by Andrew Rotherham

Two days ago, Governor Glenn Youngkin released the analysis of achievement and accountability in Virginia that was part of his executive order package when he took office. It was an open secret this was coming – it was right there in the EO – yet there is still some surprise. Here’s the RTD.

The surprise is likely because it’s pretty comprehensive. It’s reflexively getting framed as Youngkin versus Ralph Northam – the previous governor – but the problems the report outlines are more longstanding.

And they are real. If you live in the commonwealth you should read it because it’s an important and relatively unsparing look at achievement gaps that are too rarely discussed in Virginia, and some of the gamesmanship employed to sweep them under the rug. It also has information about overall achievement that is sobering. There is a lot of work to do to create a genuinely inclusive school system in Virginia…

First, the report is a good look at the tension between looking good and doing well or as we sometimes call it around here, achievement realists versus public relationists. Every state should think about an analysis like this that gets beneath the puffery and reflexive tendency to focus on silver linings disproportionately to clouds.

Second, it will be a good test of where we are politically in education. Is there a bipartisan center to set aside various disagreements and political issues and work on this particular issue? I don’t know the answer to that but I hope so.

Third, if you like to argue about NAEP you will have fun with this report. But focusing on various point estimates misses the forest for the trees. The gaps in this report are substantial and run in one direction. We have to do better. In particular, the numbers for 8th-graders, when the paths that will be open to students really come into focus, should shock. About one in five Black students are proficient and less than one in five low-income students.

That means getting serious on accountability, doing more to support teachers, providing more choices for families, and a more equitable finance system. It’s a tall order and one with something for everyone to oppose. That’s the challenge, and the opportunity.

Washington Post Versus Washington Post On Virginia Schools

Yesterday we talked about the honesty gap analysis that was released in Virginia.

A lot of response. One that caught my eye was a truly remarkable article in The Washington Post , which, instead of reporting the scope of the analysis that Virginia released, more or less just took it on, and essentially made the case that who cares about proficient, basic is good enough! Almost half of kids proficient is actually really great – at least relatively. Moreover, the article didn’t engage with the rampant racial, ethnic, and income achievement gaps the report laid out, or the information about how the state has systematically changed its accountability system to make things look better over time.

It’s particularly startling when you juxtapose that article against this Washington Post editorial from just a few years ago on the same issue:

Mr. Northam’s comments are part of an unfortunate trend in Virginia to pull back from rigor in assessments and accountability. Instead of adopting the muscular requirements of Common Core and its assessments, the state has stuck with assessments seen to be among the easiest in the nation. Some critical tests, such as the fifth-grade writing SOL, were recently jettisoned. And now state education officials are in the final stages of adopting regulations that would overhaul how schools are accredited. The board would widen a loophole to allow for “locally awarded verified credits” from the local school board in lieu of exam passage. Officials argue there is the need to broaden the lens by which schools are judged. We agree that student growth and closing the achievement gap should be recognized, but the proposal tilts too far toward letting schools off the hook for their failures. The emphasis appears to be not on actually improving schools but rather on approving how they appear.

Does democracy die in darkness or not? The news article, which reads like an editorial, says no. The actual editorial page says yes. Readers say, “wtf?”

Here’s a snapshot on Virginia, from federal data courtesy of NAGB, if you think these 8th-grade math and reading outcomes (and pay attention to the gaps) are good enough then, yes, you should oppose this. If not, let’s see if there is a bipartisan center for a meaningful school improvement package touching on the various dimensions of this problem from finance, to accountability and support, and yes, hopefully, more choices for families.

This is Virginia 8th-grade math. Decide for yourself.

Elliot Regenstein (who has a new book coming!) reached out about early education and its lack of prominence in the report. His note is brief but covers a lot of ground. I asked him if I could publish his feedback, he graciously agreed:

The new Our Commitment to Virginians report makes some very important points about student proficiency in the Commonwealth – both the need to improve overall proficiency, and to think differently about how proficiency rates are developed and talked about.  The Youngkin Administration is to be commended for expressing a commitment to improving student outcomes. As the conversation continues, it will be important for Virginia to wrestle with an important question: when kids are not proficient in middle school and high school, how did they get there?

Pre-pandemic, Virginia’s data told a pretty clear story:

-Many kids were falling behind even before kindergarten started. Data on kindergarten readiness showed that roughly two of every five entering kindergartners were “not ready.”

-Schools were not able to catch kids up when they were behind. In fact, 93% of students in Virginia attended schools in districts where – in the aggregate – students were losing ground over time on the state’s proficiency benchmarks. (Virginia’s data is unusual in this regard, and that may be related to the “honesty gap” identified in the new report; having very inclusive standards for proficiency may make it harder to show growth.)

This data suggests that there must be two prongs to any strategy for improving proficiency in Virginia. One is to work with schools to help them improve student growth, and in turn proficiency; regardless of how the state defines proficiency, there’s clearly a need to help schools improve (as there is in every state). But the other is to improve kindergarten.

While Virginia’s recent governors have been strong supporters of early learning, historically Virginia has been a laggard when it comes to state early childhood funding.  Pre-pandemic its state-funded preschool program served a lower percentage of children than any of the states it borders, with lower-per-pupil spending. But the state has been working diligently to improve early childhood outcomes, including a strong focus on improving the quality of teacher-child interactions. That work is really important for children in the first five years of life, and probably also offers some important lessons for the state’s K-12 system. If Virginia is serious about a long-term strategy to improve student outcomes, the pre-kindergarten years are a critical opportunity that must be addressed.

Co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, Rotherham has served on the Virginia Board of education and now serves on the board of the Curry School of Education Foundation at the University of Virginia. This column and the follow-up posted below have been republished with permission from Eduwonk.

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26 responses to “The Honesty Gap: Yes, Virginia, There Is a Problem”

  1. I have not looked at NEAP math but my conjecture is that the reading score differences are largely due to factors that are not teachable. If so then the schools may not be able to do much. The tests need to be changed to reduce demographic bias.

    1. A couple of other fun examples to go with the fishing story. Stories about bicycle repair and an innkeeper, neither of which are likely familiar to most low income ten year olds.

      I have yet to see a question that fit low income lives.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Awesome blog post. Thank YOU! NAEP is real and so is PISA which does tell us that the proficiency benchmarks in NAEP ARE achievable and 25 other countries do it better than us.

    Yes, we have too much gamesmanship and running away from the truth, especially about the academic gap for black, brown and economically disadvantaged kids in general.

    This is way more than an issue about proficiency – it’s about Virginia’s ability to compete for 21st century jobs and economic development to attract companies that want well-educated workforces.

    I agree, Northam did no good, actually took us backwards. Youngkin has an opportunity here with potential support from those who did not vote for him if he takes on this issue and confirms this is about Virginia’s economy as well as education.

    1. What do you mean by “NAEP is real”? The issue is demographic bias.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        can you lay out in a simple sentence what that is and provide a link to an authoritative source confirming your sentence?

        1. Demographic bias means favoring or disfavoring a discernible segment of the population. I have given several examples of disfavoring — inner city and low income. NAEP also find big differences among the states, which is likely a geographic culture bias. Prior knowledge is often cultural.

          I am the authoritative source. I have done a lot of research on certain relevant aspects of reading. See for example my diagnostic system of 126 confusion causing factors in instructional material:

          I also discovered how sentences fit together. But we have had this conversation before.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            sorry, I do not accept one-person conclusions. There have to be peers that have also investigated and confirmed findings.

            Otherwise, all we have is a bunch of guys like you – each with their own opinions and ideas.

            But if I understand correctly from your view, the infamous racial and economic academic “gap” that we see in NAEP and other standardized testing is not real , it’s an artifact of the bias in the testing?

            If the SOLs show similar “gaps” as the NAEP, does it mean that both of them have biases and that the “gap” is not real but instead an artifact of bias in the testing?

            So those kids that fail the SOLs are actually as well-educated as others and deserve a diploma?

      2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
        Kathleen Smith

        As much as I know that test bias is real, so is the inability of education to meet the needs of the poor as well as it meets the needs of the not poor. The system is one size fits all. More time? More resources? More teachers? We have tried it all, but we have not changed the infrastructure of the system.

        1. Try speaking the language of the poor. NAEP does not do this and neither does the education system.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            does that mean the SOLs are also biased against the poor?

            How should we test the poor for academic performance different than we do now?

    2. It has been ten years since I studied PISA but I doubt it has changed much. There were two primary observations.

      First, the few countries way out in front have education loving cultures that we cannot possibly match. Finland and Singapore are examples as I recall.

      Second, we are cluster right there with the other big, polyglot countries. The ranking numbers cannot possibly be accurate to three significant digits, likely not even to two, so we look to be right where we belong.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I don’t take your views on NAEP and PISA alone. I look at what others in those field say also and you seem to have your own views that are different. Correct?

  3. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    A pending post from me, my first in three weeks, will explain some of the back story to this…but I recently listened as a nurse working with a trainee was trying to teach her how to count respiration on a patient. It was not necessary to count for sixty seconds, she explained. You could count for 20 seconds and multiply by three, or even 15 seconds and multiply by four. The math seemed to be beyond the trainee, certainly a high school graduate. This was a bit concerning….

    The real stuff you need to know for a decent job in the coming century is far more complicated than simple single factor multiplication. Sending kids out with fake diplomas is criminal. But the political trend is old, has been evident as long as my wife was teaching and I was paying attention. Nobody wants to own failure or even make it easy to measure.

    1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      Sending kids out with no diploma, fake or not, is failure. We need to think about how we do education, maybe the system is the problem. You can’t keep putting more in to the standards and not require more time to teach.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        yes. You can increase the standards without doing something about how the material is taught, one would think and the outcomes would be the same but the scores – worse.

        That’s essentially what happened when SOL testing was made tougher a few year back if I recall correctly.

        But I do wonder when we compare ourselves to other countries or for that matter when we compare Virginia to Massachusetts OR DOD schools on NAEP that those systems score 10 pts higher than us.

        Are those systems teaching different than us? Better?

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Really sad since we have instruments to monitor all of that in realtime and put it on a digital display. The only difficulty is setting the units.

      Sit up straight.

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Really sad since we have instruments to monitor all of that in realtime and put it on a digital display. The only difficulty is setting the units.

      Sit up straight.

    4. Steve: What math do you think we need for most jobs in the coming century? I doubt that any of the secondary school math topics is useful for more than a small fraction. The possible exception is analytic geometry.

      This is yet another empirical question no one wants to ask.

  4. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    At least this not a comparison of SOL to NAEP. Yes, there is a gap between Black and Brown and White and High Poverty and Low poverty. There has been as long as I have been in education since 1972. There has been much done and much still to do. But don’t blame the last Gov or the Gov before that. In reality, it is poverty we need to fix. The sooner we recognize the problem and admit there is a lack of economic parity in education, the better we will be. How many decades, not years, have to pass? So far, I’m in my fifth decade of do gooders doing nothing. Could it be elitism?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Every developed country has poverty and yet most developed countries do outperform the US in reading, math and science.

        I found the chart below to be interesting:

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          We often see the “education” issue in isolation and often as left-right partisan stuff but in reality, the education issue is about economics and global economic competitiveness, jobs, and more folks able to be employed and make enough to pay for their needs and not need entitlements … funded by taxpayers.

          It all is related.

          We can blather until the cows come home about one-parent families, ‘culture” and such but at the end of the day- this harms all of us. It costs us all.

        2. I doubt the concept of one major country “outperforming” another in math, reading or science even makes sense. But if it does we have no way of knowing. It is a very strange statistical concept.

          What is clear is that most people do not understand statistical science, but then most people do not understand any specific science. It is not their job. (It is however my job.)

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Do you believe in the concept that for a given test, some students will outperform others and from that we assign grades about capabilities of understanding what is tested?

            For instance, a Doctor or an airline pilot must pass tests in order to qualify for those jobs?

  5. Elliott Webb Avatar
    Elliott Webb

    When are we going to start having the conversation about parents reading to their kids, starting when they are infants? This is about way more than schools.

  6. Elliott Webb Avatar
    Elliott Webb

    When are we going to start having the conversation about parents reading to their kids, starting when they are infants? This is about way more than schools.

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