Virginia Public Schools: Better than You Think

Virginia: High educational achievement for moderate expenditures. Source: Cato Institute. (Click for more legible image.)

Which states have the best public education systems in the country? By most rankings, Virginia scores fairly well. U.S. News & World-Report puts Virginia in the No. 12 spot. Education Week grades Virginia B-, considerably better than the national score of C. Forbes ranks Virginia 6th in the nation (7th in quality and 2nd in safety). Given all the scandals and problems we have identified here on Bacon’s Rebellion, it’s frightful to contemplate that Virginia has one of the better public school systems in the country. I shudder to think what’s happening in other states’ schools systems. But the state rankings make it clear that things could be worse… a lot worse.

Now comes a report by the libertarian Cato Institute, which places Virginia at the top of the heap. While Cato’s results undercut the Bacon’s Rebellion narrative that Virginia public schools are badly in need of reform, Cato’s methodology strikes me as valid.

Rather than mix inputs (such as spending per pupil) and outputs (such as standardized test scores), Cato focuses on outcomes only, using National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores as the raw material. The study ignores indicators such as pre-school enrollment, graduation rates and college attendance, which may be a function of factors unrelated to learning, and relies upon the standardized NAEP scores to gauge actual achievement. Cato also recognizes that the populations of the 50 states vary widely by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. Thus, a state like Iowa with a predominantly white population will generate higher average NAEP scores than an ethnically diverse state like Texas with large African-American and Hispanic populations, but lower scores don’t necessarily mean that Texas schools are doing a worse job of educating their students. Do Iowa whites outperform Texas whites? Do Iowa blacks outperform Texas blacks? Fortunately, NAEP data provides the data to make apples-to-apples comparisons. When Cato takes these into account, the state rankings change markedly.

Virginia is a fairly ethnically and socioeconomically diverse state, so when Cato adjusts for heterogeneity, its quality ranking rises to No. 1 in the country.

The Cato study makes another important adjustment. It correlates academic outcomes with money spent per student. New York spends the most money per student ($22,232), almost twice that of the typical state. “Yet,” says Cato, “that massive expenditure results in a rank of only 31. … Tennessee, on the other hand, achieves a similar level of success (ranked 30th) and spends only $8,739 per student. Although the two states appear to have education systems of similar quality, the citizens of Tennessee are getting far more bang for the buck.”

When states are ranked on the basis of heterogeneity, expenditures, and Cost of Living, Florida and Texas shoot to the top of the list, but Virginia still scores a highly respectable No. 3, making it the 7th most “efficient” state in the country.

When cost of living is taken into account, Cato finds, “no significant relationship is found between spending and student performance, either in magnitude or statistical significance.” That’s not to say spending levels have no effect, rather that “most states have reached a sufficient level of spending such that additional spending does not appear to be related to achievement as measured by these test scores.”

Other findings: Stronger teacher unions are correlated negatively with rankings. Cato speculates the reason is that unions are associated both with higher pay and expenditures and with their ability to thwart the removal of under-performing teachers. On the other hand, having a greater share of students in charter schools is positively related to student achievement — although the strength of the relationship is not strong. Cato finds that teacher-pupil ratios and the percentage of students in private schools have no meaningful bearing on educational outcomes.

Finally, Cato cautions that schools differ widely from district to district within state public school systems. “We generally dislike the idea of painting the performance of all schools in a given state with the same brush. However, state-level rankings do provide an intuitively pleasing basis for lawmakers and interested citizens to compare state education policies.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Ranked by educational value added, it’s fair to say that Virginia has one of the best public school systems in the country. Seeking continual improvement and a better deal for taxpayers, Bacon’s Rebellion tends to dwell on the warts and scabs — and we will continue to do so. But let us pause for a moment and credit our teachers, principals and educational administrators for the work they do. Caught between federal, state, and local imperatives, a swelling population of economically disadvantaged students, growing percentage of students with disabilities, and the often-unrealistic demands of parents, they have a thankless job. But they do it better than most.

Update: Larry Gross reminded me of a Cato oversight that’s big enough to undermine all of its findings. The article does not appear to adjust for the percentage of students taking the NAEPs. In some states, testing is mandatory. In Virginia it isn’t.

Update to the update: NAEP bases its state-to-state comparisons on representative samples of students in all states, says Charles B. Pyle, VDOE director of media relations.  Thus, the comparisons are valid, Cato did not commit an oversight, and Virginia’s outcomes do look pretty darn good.

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12 responses to “Virginia Public Schools: Better than You Think”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well, before we get carried away, it should be recognized that not all kids in Virginia are tested NAEP. In fact, it’s not most of them – its a smaller representative “sample” of which finding out which ones is not an easy thing on the VODE site.

    Now, they do say that they use a credible process for determining which schools when selected together truly represent the results we would expect if all kids were tested but the process for selecting the schools and the actual school picked are not readily provided.

    Perhaps Jim or Cranky can motivate them to provide that info.

    All in all – Virginia’s high scores are impressive. If we were to subtract out the low-performing schools and all those “disruptive” students – Virginia might scores competitively against OECD countries.

    I know Massachusettes even including the low-performing student scores – scores in the top 10 of OECD countries. Massachusettes and New Jersey do a fine job – as does Texas and Florida for even less money according to that chart.

    What would be even more interesting is scores from non-public, private schools… though. We know they claim and the perception is that they are “better” but are they really?

    1. Good point, Larry. Any ranking of the states should take into consideration the rate of NAEP participation for each state. I didn’t study the fine print, but I don’t believe Cato made that adjustment. Such an oversight definitely would be an imperfection in Cato’s methodology.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Yes, this is complicated subject, full of nuance. Look at the high placement for District of Columbia, for example. Similar anomalies could be present in all the 50 states, impacting rankings up or down, including Va.

    2. Charles B. Pyle, VDOE’s director of media relations, makes the following point:

      NAEP is a national assessment program in which representative samples of students in all states and other state-level education systems (Department of Defense schools, territories, etc.) are tested every two years in reading and math in grades 4 and 8. The program also includes a national representative sample. There are other NAEP tests, but the state and national reading and math assessments in grades 4 and 8 are the most cited as providing a means for state-to-state and state-to-nation comparisons. NAEP relies on the testing of representative samples of students, NOT on testing all students in Virginia or in any other state.

      VDOE has worked closely with school divisions since NCLB mandated NAEP participation by all states (prior to NCLB, participation was voluntary and Virginia was among the voluntary participants) to ensure that Virginia’s samples are truly representative, including students with disabilities and English learners.

      More on Virginia and NAEP:

      Given this input, I’d say the Cato methodology is valid and Virginia does look pretty darn good by comparison.

  2. Yes, more about the NAEP and its scoring system and sampling criteria would be terrific followup.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I trust their sampling process but I think the process should be more transparent on the VDOE site.

    But here’s another interesting thing – it apparently INCLUDES private schools:

    Selecting Private Schools and Students for Participation in NAEP

    but even some of the limited stuff that VDOE provides is NOT in web-friendly HTML but in Microsoft Word instead!

    Where I AM with Bacon and Cranky is transparency… but there is a responsibility to using the data provided IMHO and that is when problems are focused on – it should also include CONSTRUCTIVE criticism about what should be done rather than roundly condemning the problems and essentially advocating abandonment of a “failed” system and/or turn it over to non-public schools with almost zero transparency!

    1. Here’s my constructive criticism. When you’re in a deep hole, the first thing you do is stop digging. I have focused in recent months on the increasing disorder in school classrooms, a direct result of federal policy (and increasingly) state policy. We need to revisit the issue of school discipline.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        but they are NOT in a deep hole as your acknowledgment of the rankings proves.

        IMHO, you have an ideological/demographic interest in the discipline issue that is not warranted and not backed up with real evidence but rather speculative premises.

        But even WITH that issue – Virginia does well so they must be handling it at least as good as other states are given their ranking.

        This is not the only issue that Cranky with your help hits on… it’s a shotgun approach to whacking on public education in general in Virginia and there is ample proof of that just going back a year in BR.

        I think it your preogative to write what you choose to but it’s fair game to comment on also and I do and when I feel it’s biased and unfair and/or there are other aspects and perspectives, I will jump in also.

        but my Bottom Line is that the public school system in Virginia is NOT a “failure” and NOT in a “deep hole” and that just plain old BS and hyperbole with a right-leaning tinge to it.

        You also get credit on stuff… but some of it does need an opposing view!

        Happy New Year – the best to you and your family and good things in 2019 for you and yours!

  4. Yes, Happy New Year to all!

  5. djrippert Avatar

    “Everybody knows how to compute an average, few know how to calculate a standard deviation.”

    Break out the urban crescent from RoVa and where would the two resulting dots be placed on that chart?

    Anybody want to ask Bernie Sanders his opinion of Vermont’s place on the graph?

  6. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    djrippart says:

    “Break out the urban crescent from RoVa and where would the two resulting dots be placed on that chart?”

    Yes, precisely, Don, and that’s also the point I was making above. Likely a version of this happened with happened with DC too.

    There are a lot of interesting studies these days that turn our reality back right right side up, given the world of illusion we are being fed daily by our elites.

    One, for example, finds the the average male who gets into both Yale and the University of Kentucky gets no advantage for future financial success by going to Yale. Another world’s smart males succeed because they are smart. Where they went to school, Yale versus U of Kentucky, got nothing to do with it.

    And with women, that is a different matter together. She’s better off going to Yale only if she marries, and she’d worse off going to Yale financially, if she does not marry.

    Funny how the real world works. But not so funny, when you consider that kids are not being told or taught about how the real world works by the elites, and it’s doing our kids and our nation enormous harm, each and every day. We have got to start telling ourselves and kids the truth in the year 2019.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      My comment immediately above also applies the to finding in Jim’s post today called “Map of the Day: Virginia’s Disabled Populations.”

      In that post we find that:

      “In Lee County, Virginia’s westernmost jurisdiction, more than one quarter of the population (25.7%) has a disability, according to American Community Survey data. The rate of disabilities — physical or mental impairments that limit a person’s ability to work — is almost as high in neighboring counties, as shown in this map produced by the Virginia Public Access Project … ”

      Do you really honestly believe that (25.7%) of the population of Lee Country has a disability, a physical or mental impairment, that limits those citizens ability to work? Does the state believe those plague statistics?

      If the State does believe those statistics are true, they should shut the entire county down. Something is grossly wrong with the water, the air, the soils in Lee County, something!

      Likely, no one really believes those statistics reflect reality, except maybe the residents themselves who are so classified. Think of the harm the government imposes on its citizens, their minds, their spirits, and their futures in Lee County, when they are so official CLASSIFIED by their own government!

      What future can Lee County have with such a corrupt system? And how can the government pile injury atop insult, making matters ever worse? Why the Government can legalize toxic weed, and the Government can bring in a gambling casino, to finish off the population of Lee County for good, do to them what we and our government did to the American Indian.

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