Virginia SAT Scores Barely Budge in 2020

Data source: Virginia Department of Education.

by James A. Bacon

In the absence of Standards of Learning (SOL) exams last year, there’s no way to tell if the education policies enacted by the Northam administration are working or failing for the vast majority of Virginia school students. But Virginia schools did administer the SAT college-preparatory exams, so we can get a sense of how well high school graduates are doing.

The good news is that Virginia high school grads eked out incremental gains in the percentage that met or exceeded the College Board’s college-readiness benchmarks in English and mathematics. The bad news is that a wide gulf persists between Asians and other ethnic groups, even though the average scores of Asian students declined somewhat.

Fifty-five percent of Virginia high-school graduate test takers met the SAT college-readiness standards, up from 54% last year. (The Virginia Department of Education rounds off its numbers, so it is impossible to tell if the increase was a full percentage point, or slightly more, or slightly less.) As usual, Asian students out-performed all other racial/ethnic groups by significant (though diminished) margins. Whites trailed Asians, Hispanics trailed whites, and blacks trailed Hispanics.

“Despite the disruptions caused by the closure of schools, Virginia students continue to perform well in comparison with their peers nationwide,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane in a press release. “But the wide gaps we see in the performance of student groups underscore the importance of the work underway at both the state and local levels to promote equity and expand opportunities for underserved students. Closing these persistent achievement gaps is the number one priority of both the Virginia Department of Education and the state Board of Education.”

While Virginia high schoolers continued to out-perform their peers in other states, the superior margin in average SAT scores shrank last year. The combined average for English and math tests rose three points for Virginia students to 1,113. By contrast, the average rose for students nationally by 12 points to 1,051.

(Warning: It is dangerous to draw any hard conclusions from the change in year-to-year performance, just as it is to draw conclusions from changes in state-to-state comparisons. A major variable in statewide-average SAT scores is the percentage of students taking the exams. In Virginia 65% took the exams this year compared to 68% last year, a decrease of three percentage points — enough to influence average scores. Students taking the exams tend to be more academically qualified for college than those who don’t.)

Regardless, the chronic under-performance of African-American students remains a stubborn and indisputable fact, despite the emphasis the Northam administration has given to closing the gap.

Also worrisome is the fact that insofar as the racial/ethnic gap closed slightly this year, it mostly reflects declining Asian and white test scores, not an increase in black test scores. (Hispanics increased their average overall SATs by 1 point.)

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s educational policy under the Northam administration has been premised on the assumption that schools are systemically biased against “people of color” while whites are favored by “white privilege.” In the social-justice catechism, Asians are deemed to be people of color. Social-justice orthodoxy fails to explain why Asians excel in a system supposedly stacked in favor of whites. Social-justice orthodoxy also fails to explain why Hispanics, who labor not only under the supposed disadvantage of ethnicity but the very real disadvantage in many cases of speaking English as a second language, out-perform blacks. Moreover, leftist orthodoxy ignores the fact that spending per student tends to be higher for blacks in Virginia than for whites.

Northam’s educational policies have a two-fold thrust: (1) to implement a “restorative justice” approach to school discipline, (2) to spread the social-justice doctrine of systemic racism and white privilege, and (3) to increase state support for K-12 education. The social-justice paradigm refuses to consider the possibility that the vigorous enforcement of social-justice priorities might have negative consequences on blacks such as increasing classroom disruption or inculcating a sense of passivity and helplessness in the face of supposedly omni-present racism. 

One can speculate whether Northam’s policies are making a difference in the lower grades. But the SAT scores suggest that there is little sign of improvement among college-bound seniors.

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17 responses to “Virginia SAT Scores Barely Budge in 2020

  1. Well, those scores have been stagnant for way longer than Northam tenure and changes that he had something to do with would take years to make a difference.

    One of the issues if we want to honestly and non-partisanly deal with is the simple fact that low SOL scores pull down the high ones and when you look at a school system like Henrico where you live and you look at the range of SOL scores for something like 3rd grade reading – they range from 50 to 90 depending on the school.

    Yes, some schools in Henrico – the entire school scores about 50 on 3rd grade reading SOLs. When you average that schools score with a good school – it drags it down.

    So one way to represent this is not a bar chart over years but a histogram for each year showing the SOL scores and it will show all the kids low scores as well as the high scores and really show the problem.

    If you don’t get the low scores to improve – we’re never going to see overall SOL scores get better…

    This all goes back to the conversation about economically disadvantaged kids who have “bad” parents… so they can’t be helped … As long as we hew to that line of reasoning – I’m not sure what we expect for the SOL scores over time.

  2. I am not sure SAT scores are going to matter in the post Covid world based on equity. Here is list of over 800 higher education schools that no longer require the SAT. UVA and W &L are on the list. PSAT is still a big money maker. Many school boards in Virginia pay to administer to 10th and 11th graders.

    • I agree. This is why some schools were already going away from SATs and I predict we’re going to see something similar for K-12 charter schools where other factors will be considered as part of qualifications.

      The schools (not all) have decided that purely academic merit-based criteria are biased by societal factors that work against some who are capable but do not “test well”.

  3. We will soon blessedly see the end of the Northam debacle in Virginia. However, it pays to remember that McAuliffe proceeded Northam. So, we’ll soon have eight consecutive years of Democratic leadership. Barring a miracle we’ll have another liberal Democrat as governor from the 2021 election. By that end of that person’s term a first grade student at the start of the McAuliffe Administration will graduate from high school at the end of the liberal Democratic governor elected in 2021.


    1) Does anybody believe that the educational outcome gap between Blacks and other ethnic groups will have been significantly reduced?
    2) Does anybody believe that the Democratic candidate for governor in 2025 will admit that the liberal Democratic policies have failed and try a new approach?

    • re:

      ” Questions:

      1) Does anybody believe that the educational outcome gap between Blacks and other ethnic groups will have been significantly reduced?

      is this a Virginia question or a bigger than Virginia question?

      2) Does anybody believe that the Democratic candidate for governor in 2025 will admit that the liberal Democratic policies have failed and try a new approach?

      same question again – is this about all Dem governors everywhere there is a racial gap?

      Have the GOP governors like Hogan figured out how to fix it?

    • I never have thought if that way Mr. DJ. You are right after a possible 3 terms of Democratic governors there will be no measurable change. I think their plan is to change the way education is measured to create data that supports their policies. 12 years might not be enough time for that. Education is a massive monolith that is hard to move and even harder to understand.

      • These failures evidenced by SAT are the culmination of failures of post modern American education that began in earnest in the 1970s, though the seeds were planted much earlier.

        Thus SAT performance collapsed in late 1970s and have never recovered. This has documented again and again since early 1980s. Excellent primers on this subject are books by UVa. Emeritus Professor E. D. Hirsch:

        Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987)

        “In 1996, Hirsch wrote The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. In it, Hirsch proposed that romanticized, anti-knowledge theories of education are the cause of America’s lackluster educational performance and also of widening inequalities in gender and race. Hirsch portrays American educational theory as one that attempts to give students intellectual tools such as “critical thinking skills” but denigrates teaching any actual content and labels it “mere rote learning.” Hirsch states that is what has failed to develop knowledgeable, literate students.” (Wikipedia)

        The Knowledge Deficit, 2006 (“Disappointing results on reading tests, Hirsch argued, can be traced back to a knowledge deficit that keeps students from making sense of what they read.”)

        The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, (late 1990s) states that true mission of schools is to prepare citizens to succeed in our democracy by embracing a common-core, knowledge-rich curriculum instead of today’s content-free approach.

        In 2016, he published “Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories” that highlights major problems with American education, including the emphasis on teaching skills (using false methods like critical thinking skills), instead of demanding that students acquire knowledge thus gaining vocabulary and cultural understanding critical to their competence in the real world where their success is critical for them, their communities, and their society.

        In short, students learn to read and understand and act intelligently only through reading books and materials worthy of the effort they require, and writing about what they learn in books.

  4. Can’t use those scores for much of anything. Only the BoBs take the tests, and the reasons for not taking the those test are not necessarily based on race, economics, or anything else about which you’re hoping to draw conclusions.

    BTW, maybe things have changed, but isn’t the best combined score 1,600?

    But then, all that white space (ooh isvthat racist?) at the top of the graph would make Virginia’s kids look dumber

  5. The James Wyatt Whitehead V and LarrytheG comments lead to some very interesting questions beyond scoring.

    If colleges don’t require the SAT, who will take it? What will their scores mean?

    If the SAT isn’t used in college admission decisions, won’t all other criteria be subjective? If all criteria is subjective, will that really advance “equity?”

    Will colleges be admitting less-prepared students and seeing their drop-out rate increase, or will they be surprised that SAT scores aren’t the predictor of academic success as advertised?

    Will there be a change in academic standards at colleges because of the effects of across-the-board subjective admissions standards?

    I’m no fan of the SAT, but I don’t know how else you compare the students at Highland Springs with those at Deep Run. I don’t know if students have to reveal on their college applications whether or not they took SAT prep classes, but I think they should.

    If we excuse students because they don’t “test well,” aren’t we telling them that they can’t ever be doctors, CPAs, and lawyers?

    • These are good questions and worthy of discussion but a fair number here in BR believe that academics trumps everything else and judging on other factors is essentially discrimination.

      Those other factors don’t all need to be subjective. They can be things like how many activities do you participate in – or are your grades good on some things and not on others? Did you learn a foreign language? Do you participate in things outside of school, etc?

      People who get a degree in Liberal Arts will often advocate for things besides just pure academics… like “well-rounded” or can think critically, etc.

      I do not dismiss the importance of tests for professions like engineering or medicine or CPA or nurse or police – etc…

      but are there other factors that make a good doctor or a good policeman that are perhaps not on the current tests?

      For instance, what makes a good pilot? The best on academics or are there other things important to being a good pilot?

      Finally – take two people. Give them a test.

      one of them can get correct answers quickly but misses a couple others that can be critical.

      The other one takes longer – but answers the critical questions correctly.

      which one do you want for your doctor?

      I’m just making the argument here – not claiming that testing is not important.

    • Will, you touched on the real issue: The purpose of getting rid of the SATs is to get rid of objective standards precisely so college admissions offices can admit whomever they want. That would include more African-Americans and Hispanics to meet anti-racism goals and more legacies (mostly white) in the hope that rich alumni will donate more money.

      The big losers will be non-legacy Asians who made the mistake of thinking that excelling in academic achievement was the path to getting into a good college.

      • Yes, plus there is this vitally important report by the National Association of Scholars that changed everything on the subject:

        “In exchange for generous Chinese government funding, the College Board has given China strategic access to American K-12 education. Since at least 2003, the College Board has sponsored Confucius Institutes at K-12 schools, served as a recruiter for Chinese government programs, and helped the Chinese Communist Party design and gain control over American teacher training programs.

        This report details the College Board’s corruption by the Chinese government and outlines key policy changes to protect and restore the integrity of the American education system.”

        For a whole more, on the corruption of America’s college boards please go to:

      • Here today’s press release on this US College Board corruption report:

        College Board Corrupted by Chinese Government Funding, Report Finds

        New York, NY, September 10, 2020 – In exchange for generous Chinese government funding, the College Board has given China strategic access to American K-12 education, concludes a new report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS).

        Corrupting the College Board: Confucius Institutes and K-12 Education documents how, since at least 2003, the College Board has partnered closely with the Chinese government. The College Board worked with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to develop an AP Chinese Language and Culture course, served as a recruiter for Chinese government initiatives, and helped the CCP design and gain control over American teacher-training programs such as the National Chinese Language Conference. In 2014, College Board CEO David Coleman referred to the Hanban, the Chinese government agency that oversaw Confucius Institutes, as “the sun” whose light the College Board, “the moon,” was “so honored to reflect.”

        “The College Board’s close relationship with the Chinese government shows how deeply China has penetrated the American education system,” said NAS senior research fellow Rachelle Peterson, the author of Corrupting the College Board. “The nation has already woken up to the threat of Confucius Institutes, espionage, intellectual property theft, and covert enrollment as graduate students by Chinese military officers. Now we need to grapple with the realization that one of America’s most prominent academic organizations, reaching millions of students annually, has been corrupted as well.”

        Corrupting the College Board makes five policy recommendations to protect and restore American K-12 education:

        Replace the AP Chinese Language and Culture Test. The Department of Education and the Department of Defense should convene a working group to prepare an alternative high school Chinese language and culture test.

        Require schools to close Confucius Classrooms. The Department of Education should warn all school districts of the risks of hosting a Confucius Classroom or using the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, and Congress should require, on penalty of losing public funding, the closure of Confucius Classrooms.

        Require the College Board to cut ties with the Chinese government. Congress should condition federal funding to the College Board on the immediate severance of all partnerships with the Hanban or any of its replacement organizations.

        Investigate the College Board’s corruption. The Department of Justice should open up an inquiry at once.

        Replace the National Chinese Language Conference. The Department of Defense should sponsor an alternative program to train and provide professional development for American teachers of Chinese language.

        “The College Board’s steadfastness to the Chinese government is astounding,” said NAS president Peter Wood. “Previous NAS reports have documented the College Board’s ideological skew in the AP U.S. History and AP European History courses. Now we learn that, even as the U.S. Department of State and FBI warn against China’s aggressive campaigns to capture American education, the College Board has nonetheless forged ahead with new Chinese government initiatives. More than ever, we need a serious rival to the College Board to provide competent, rigorous, uncompromised test materials for American students.”

        NAS is a network of scholars and citizens united by a commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. Membership in NAS is open to all who share a commitment to these broad principles. NAS publishes a journal and has state and regional affiliates. Visit NAS at


        If you would like more information about this issue, please contact Chance Layton at 917-551-6770, or by email at [email protected].

  6. It’s a cool strategy. Stereotyping one group to deny the racism involving another.

  7. All subsequent paragraphs and comments aside, the first sentence does not hold up – SOLs do not tell us whether education policies are working or failing.

    Hold on, I misspoke. SOLs will tell us whether the policies are working, as the SOLs are that policy. However, they tell us nothing about the actual education, short of whether teachers have wasted enough academic hours stuffing entry level information into kids’ heads well enough for said kids to regurgitate it back with proper wording. Not having SOLs was the silver lining of the pandemic.

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