Update on the Debate over SOL Performance

top_school_divisionsby James A. Bacon

There has been a lively discussion in the comments section of previous blog posts regarding the interpretation of the 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) data. The debate has largely focused on explaining the gap in the average SOL pass rate between white students and black students.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought reflected in the comments. The first school blames the lower black SOL pass rates on unequal access to resources, most notably access to experienced teachers. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “structural” school of thought. The second school attributes black under-performance to cultural factors, such as peer pressure to avoid “acting white” by pursuing academic achievement. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “cultural” school of thought.

I have presented evidence in previous posts suggesting that cultural factors play a big role in explaining the SOL performance gap. But the case is hardly a slam-dunk (at least not as I have presented it.) The Blogger who goes by “Life on the Fall Line” makes an interesting argument. Schools with the smallest gaps between white and black performance happen to be among the smaller school systems in the state. When there’s only one elementary school, one middle school and one high school in a jurisdiction, he says, all the white kids and all the black kids in a jurisdiction get thrown in together.

When white parents don’t have a choice but to send their children to schools with black children the racial gap looks like it shrinks. … Broadly speaking, when the chance to discriminate does not present itself as an option, the racial gap closes. Or at least that’s how it appears.

The correlation between small school systems and higher black SOL performance is far from perfect, he concedes, but he thinks the relationship is strong. (It should not be difficult to test his hypothesis. We’ve got data on black SOL performance, and we’ve got data on the number of schools per school district.)

Larry Gross advances a different argument. He points to large variations in the black pass rate from school to school.

There are 45 elementary schools in Henrico with only 10 showing significant percentages of blacks – and the reading scores of the 10 schools vary from 40% pass to 75% pass. Now if “culture” is the cause of the state-level black scores, please explain why “culture” is not being reflecting pretty much the same across different elementary school districts. Why is there a 35% disparity in black pass rates depending on school?

One reason for the variation may be that the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” black students is higher in some school districts than others. The data exists to take that variable into account. My hunch is that the variability would shrink but still persist, and Larry’s question still would need to be answered.

Larry and Life on the Fall Line both make interesting points. Anyone who embraces the “cultural” school of thought needs to address their arguments.

There is a third basket of explanations, which I call the “institutional” school of thought, that remains to be explored here. That line of thinking would attribute some of the gap in student performance to varying quality of administration at different schools and school systems. Arguably, some schools and entire school divisions are just better managed or have more inspired teachers.

Along those lines, instead of chastising failing school systems, perhaps we should be rewarding — or at least recognizing — exceptional school systems. Hill City Jim has ranked Virginia’s school divisions by the average SOL pass rate for black students. The top-performing school systems — all divisions with a pass rate of 70% or higher — appear at the top of this post. Are administrators of those school divisions doing something right, or does superior black student performance reflect lower poverty rates or other factors over which schools have no control?

I’m not sure we’ll find any definitive answers, but we’ll keep asking the questions.

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7 responses to “Update on the Debate over SOL Performance”

  1. excellent narrative that gets to the core issues.

    I’d only point out 2 additional things:

    1. – the discussion has remained civil and focuses on issues – that’s a giant PLUS in a world where name-calling and ad hominems rule.. on controversial issues.

    2. – I still think if had a chart that showed the highest schools in Va and the lowest schools in Virginia – you’re going to see examples of two schools, one high and one low – in the same school district.

    and in that school district – if you then compare school scores, you’re going to see that neither whites nor blacks score in a uniform way across the district ..

    when you say “average” a more meaningful measure would be to show the standard deviation.

    the district might have a 80% pass rate but it could have pass rates in some schools as low as 40 or 50 or as high as 90%

    Do we think that all schools in a district are equally resourced?

    we have evidence from studies that show they are not – in some states and are in other states – like Florida.

    but I congratulate Jim for carrying the issue, evoking substantiative comments, keeping it civil ….

  2. the following statement should be sobering to anyone concerned about SOL scores of blacks.

    ” The data reveal that more than 40 percent of schools that receive federal Title I money to serve disadvantaged students spent less state and local money on teachers and other personnel than schools that don’t receive Title I money at the same grade level in the same district.”


    1. If 40% of Title 1 schools received less state-local money for teachers and other personnel than other schools, does that mean that 60% received as much money or MORE?

      1. well you gotta read the rest:

        ” The data reveal that more than 40 percent of schools that receive federal Title I money to serve disadvantaged students …
        spent less state and local money on teachers and other personnel than schools that don’t receive Title I money at the same grade level in the same district.”

        In other words, the Title 1 resources are supposed to SUPPLEMENT and the study is finding that those funds are SUPPLANTING existing funds ….

        then you need to read the study itself:


        “Comparing Per-Pupil Personnel Expenditures Across All Schools Within a District

        Per-pupil personnel expenditures often varied considerably across schools within districts, and nearly half of all schools had per-pupil personnel expenditures that were more than 10 percent above or below their district’s average. Some, but not all, of these differences were related to school grade level.

        Across all districts and schools (including both Title I and non–Title I schools), 47 percent of schools had state and local personnel expenditures per pupil that were more than 10 percent above or below their district’s average.”

        “Comparing Expenditures Between Title I and Non–Title I Schools
        Within districts that had both Title I and non–Title I schools, more than 40 percent of Title I schools had lower personnel expenditures per pupil than did non–Title I schools at the same school grade level.”

  3. http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/title-i/school-level-expenditures/school-level-expenditures.pdf

    “More than one-third of higher-poverty schools (above their district’s poverty average) had lower per-pupil personnel expenditures than lower-poverty schools in their districts at the same school grade level”

  4. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Hey, look at me, getting name checked on the front page! I feel like the prettiest girl at the ball!

    So, my analysis has mostly focused on the racial gap because 1) I think it helps dispel the notion that there’s some unique anti-education bias in black culture that doesn’t exist in white culture (I’ve observed American culture long enough to know that isn’t true) and 2) It’s important that a just, democratic society do all it can to educate all of its citizens up to the same level.

    But, this graph does display something interesting. Of the 17 schools displayed above, all but six have black student populations below 13 percent and all but three have black students populations below the state average for black student populations.

    The reason I bring up 13 percent is because that’s around the percentage of black share in a neighborhood that usually spurs white flight (http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/Rothstein.pdf). It makes sense in a state like Virginia that has a higher black population that the national average that number would creep higher. Where the white population doesn’t feel threatened by the amount of black people in the area – again, this is broadly speaking – you see the black pass rate for the SOL rise. In the same vein it’s interesting to note that six of the ten systems that have the narrowest racial gap are included here, and all of the ten have black pass rates above the state average.

    By this point it’s probably pretty clear that I’m a structuralist, but I’m also a bit of an institutionalist when it comes to education (I think the former feeds the latter on a macro scale, but I realize that latter can cause a lot of useful variability). Being in schools you can tell a huge difference between schools where the administration supports its teachers and the ones where assistant principal level and up are a rotating door. And looking at school districts you can tell the difference between districts where politicians actually believe in the system and the ability to change it and the ones who treat it like a political chip that can be traded between hands every other year with a new superintendent to placate the rubes.

    The point where the two schools of thought converge for me is here:

    – Since humans are born with a desire to learn educating them is fairly easy when they’re children as long as:
    1: Those children show up to their learning center as able to learn as possible (being well fed, well rested and not ill) and
    2: There is an administration in place that supports its teachers.

    Everything else is gravy.

    1. Well said.

      I guess I’d not go quite so far as to implicate white flight as the root of all the disparities because a competent and purposeful school administration would make sure that white flight would not pervert the intent of the law to provide equal resources. In other words, the folks who run the school system know and institutionalize the bias by purposeful and wrong resource policies.

      Then we look at statewide aggregate that actually depicts the systematic problem of unequal resourcing – and attribute the gap to “culture” when if you drill down the data to individual districts you see huge disparities between pass rates in different schools and races.

      drill-down confirms 10-20-30 point differences in the SAME race between different schools in the same district.

      this is a scandal.. the State DOE is essentially condoning this by:

      1. – not showing the resource issue forthrightly by publishing the SAME DATA that gets reported to the Feds who have analyzed it and reported the bias in resourcing.

      2. – not developing a state policy to force school systems to not under-resource schools – that are supposed to be getting Title 1 supplemental and State grants for at risk.

      3. -not forcing school districts to report in their budgets the resources devoted to each school – to admit their resource policies.

      A more harsh assessment is that segregation continues but in a more subtle but real way… via systematic districting of neighborhood schools according to demographics and income boundaries, then going one step further and under resourcing the low-end demographic neighborhood schools.

      I’ll say it again. This is a scandal in a time when we continue to talk about the “racial gap”. We know the truth but we insist on confirming our worst biases….hiding from it.

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