Watering Down the SOLs. Again.

by John Butcher

If you want to boost the pass rates of the Standards of Learning exams, you have three choices (aside from the one perfected at Richmond’s Carver Elementary): Improve teaching, make the tests easier, or relax the scoring.

On the 2019 revision of the math tests, the Board of “Education” chose the last option: They adopted cut scores in five of six cases that were less than the level necessary to retain the same level of rigor as the earlier tests. The results were predictable (and, of course, fed the false notion that student performance was improving).

The Board now has jiggered the English tests to the same end. The recommendation (teacher-driven; no pretense here of objectivity) was for every cut score to be lower (easier) than the level necessary to maintain the rigor of the tests.

The Board rejected the Superintendent’s slightly higher recommendations and adopted the committee’s numbers (video at 1:44:55; minutes are not yet available). This grade inflation will have the happy result of making the Board and the Superintendents and the English teachers and the students all look better, all without anybody having to break a sweat.

It will also make it impossible to measure the effect of the coronavirus on English performance.

This is not an anomaly, but rather part of an ongoing campaign to camouflage the fading performance of the Virginia public school system. However, unfortunately for the self-serving mendacity of the “education” establishment, the NAEP data for fourth-grade reading….

and eighth-grade reading…

…give away the game.

Your tax dollars at “work.”

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39 responses to “Watering Down the SOLs. Again.

  1. Repeat after me: Public school education in Virginia under the Northam administration is undergoing the greatest meltdown in the state’s history.

    I wonder if Virginians will enjoy living in a Third World state.

    • Dems don’t need or want thinkers.

    • Repeat after me … Kirk Cox was a public school teacher for 30 years. Where is Mr. Cox with a loud condemnation of the Northam Administration’s track record with regard to public schools.

      We conservatives / libertarians can carp all day long about the failures of the Northam Administration on BaconsRebellion. However, until the loonies who insist on nomination by convention in Virginia’s Republican Party demand candidates that address the hard core issues facing the state we are just whispering into a mine shaft.

      How about offering a BaconsRebellion Q&A with candidate Cox? I’d be happy to ask the questions. I can assure you there will be plenty of clarity if I ask the questions. I promise not to call the General Assembly The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond if that helps.

  2. Just to note – NAEP does not test every school: ” NAEP is given to a representative sample of students across the country. Results are reported for groups of students with similar characteristics (e.g., gender, race and ethnicity, school location),”

    I think, not positive, that one or two schools per school district get tested.

    Virginia ranks high on the 2019 NAEP compared to other states – about 4th nationally:


  3. The other thing to note is that NAEP testing also includes Private schools and Charter schools:

    “NAEP assessments are administered to students in public, private, and charter schools at grades 4, 8, and 12. ”


  4. John,
    This is a really good contribution. They must know what they are doing to these students. How do they justify this? We are trending downward in all the international comparisons. Do the teachers and educational establishment not see this or not understand how ruinous it is for the nation and for the students who are misled about their proficiency?

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    The adjustment of cut scores is nothing new to SOLS. They did the same thing a few years after the implementation of SOLS. So many schools were heading for the state takeover list. So state board of education artificially adjusted the cut scores in math, English, science, and history. The SOL cut scores for 11th grade US History? Get a D or 60% and you pass. Get a 50% and qualify for a retake.

    You see why the state will not test this year? Not only is the planning and administration of the tests difficult. Most kids will not even score a 50%.

    Dear school board and VEA:

    • Damn. I would have guessed that I was the only person on this board who knew of The Texas Troubadour.

      I assume you watched the Ken Burns documentary on country music.

      Country music – yet another opportunity where Virginia had the lead only to squander the benefits. Like deregulated banking.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        You can’t beat Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree on WSM A.M. 650. 50,000 clear watts can still be heard at night even in Virginia.

        Ken Burns. Very talented. I always had trouble with the pace of his documentaries. He makes me so sleepy.

  6. Four. Breed a smarter human.

    And James, the system is designed to fail. It’s been failing in red and blue. The Northam administration is just the latest in the line.

    The good news is that if we adopted all of the changes and theories suggested by those on BR, it’s still going to fail.

  7. Well this chart shows Virginia doing better than National NAEP scores:

    Matt Hurt has some interesting trend slides for SOLs in Virginia that could add to this conversation, SOL scores nosedived in the 2012-2013 timeframe as Virginia stiffened the testing…

    This is one of those half-glass issues. It all depends on what lens you want to use – but suffice to say, perhaps ironically, the very reason we have insight into public school academic performance is Government that mandates transparency. Until No Child Left Behind – there were far fewer, almost nonexistent requirements for standardized testing.

    Now, because of that, we can compare schools across Virginia which the critics here in BR use to essentially impugn public schools in Virginia in general as a failure but that same required transparency shows that Virginia is actually among the top 5 states in the country.

    Finally, the narrative that government funded public schools – as a concept is a fail – is shown to be totally false when we look at the academic performance of other developed countries public schools – THEIR government-funded schools seem to do quite well in fact.

    Public Education is one of the hallmarks of developed countries Thomas Jefferson himself advocated for public schools. Countries that have public schools have the highest GDP and highest life expectancy of all the countries on the planet.

    Public Schools in Virginia and nationally are not without their problems for sure, but focusing only on the short side to promote a narrative that whatever government does is a fail – just simply is not the truth.

    Public Education is a SUCCESS of government -in the US and globally.

    • If you’re going to cherry pick your data, it pays to avoid the sour ones.
      In this case:
      The graph stops at 2017, which is before the 2019 data at issue in the post;
      The graph is by the Department of “Education” whose manipulations are at issue here;
      The graph shows no dent, indeed perhaps a small jump, from the tightening of the tests in 2013; and
      While above the national average, the graph shows Virginia BELOW 50% proficient.
      As well, the earlier comment about private school data ignores the NAEP source that clearly states the NAEP data reproduced in the post are public schools only.

      • The numbers did dip – but overall Virginia is still ranked in the top nationwide.

        On the NAEP – where in the chart did you note that this was public school data only?

        The NAEP site says it’s all schools.

        Can you provide a link to the Virginia public schools only data and/or differentiate between public school NAEP data and private/charter school data.

        Not really cherry-picking. Over the last few years, the NAEP scores for Virginia have stayed high, yes they dipped recently but again – they still rank high nationwide.

        The narrative that Virginia schools are “failing” is simply not true.

        You won’t find a bigger critic in myself with regard to the gap for Economically Disadvantaged – but again – that gap is pretty much nationwide.

        Richmond Schools, your favorite target, are truly horrible but again you could be accused of cherry-picking also because you asiduously fail to mention that adjacent Henrico also has some pretty horrible schools and you’ve really never addressed that much less why.

        You also fail to mention CIP schools in Virginia which not only score higher on SOLs, but higher for ED.

        I just think you and Bacon tend to present a one-sided “public schools fail” narrative and it’s not a complete picture. Public schools in Virginia rank high nationally – that’s a fact and it’s one that is not portrayed in your “all-is-horrible” narratives.

        • Larry, john butcher has been blowing you out of the water on these matters for years. He is incredibly accomplished on these matters. You have spent your time being grossly uninformed, trying to muddle his great work, and truth. But keep your tactics up, as it proves John’s case and his grossly dishonest opposition that has been hiding the truth for decades, ruining the future of generations of our children, particularly those disadvantaged. Unfortunately, you have played your part in hiding that truth and all the damage it has done to America’s kids.

  8. Way back in my reporter days (so mid 80s), I watched the State Board of Education wrestle with “cut scores” for the pre-license tests given to education students, Praxis I think. Similar games were played then. Not sure when Garrison Keillor coined his phrase about his town where “all the children are above average” but that has been the touchstone all along….

    Larry makes a point that the successes do not get attention, but that also underlines a point that usually gets ignored. The key variable is the student’s willingness to work and the parental support, and if a student has neither, the school system is up against it.

    • The thing is that VDOE, like many agencies try to present the best face they can but they ALSO provide full transparency of the SOL scores for anyone to see – which Butchers uses. Without that transparency Butcher would be dead in the water. He chooses to present the bad face which is his choice, I just chime in to get the other half shown also because the narrative he present is one of failure and that’s just not the whole truth.

      The other thing to keep in mind is that VDOE does not “create” data – they are collecting it from the schools themselves which are responsible for the academic performance. Same deal with NAEP.

      When we say that “Virginia public schools are failing” or some similar narrative – it’s not VDOE that is faiing – it’s schools across Virginia – but as said earlier, that’s simply not true if you look at Virginia compared to other states – we do reasonably well.

      We do need to do better especially in places like Richmond but Richmond is not representative of Virginia – it’s the outlier.

      Sometimes it seems like everytime Bucher and Jim post something about Public Schools in Virginia – it’s a “Public Schools in Virginia FAIL” type narrative.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      It was the National Teachers Exam. Praxis comes along in the late 1990s for Virginia. I remember taking and acing the National Teachers Exam before I even had one single solitary education course under my belt. It seemed like a test that measured common test more than anything else.

  9. The decrease in reading scores is distressing. However, one cannot blame the Northam administration. The failure in teaching and learning occurred before this administration came to office. Take the 2019 fourth grade scores for example. Those students started kindergarten about 2014, four years before Northam took office. The basics of reading are taught in kindergarten and grades 1-3, and that was before Northam took office as far as these kids were concerned. Even for those in grade 4 at the end of the 2019 school year (Northam took office in January 2018), most of the teachers employed then had been hired before he took office. There is something more basic wrong. If the fourth-grade test scores in 2022 and beyond (when the kids who were in kindergarten and grades 1 and 2 when Northam took office are in the fourth grade) fail to improve or show more slippage, the Northam administration can be blamed for not finding a solution, but the problem predates this administration.

    • Mr. Hall-Sizemore,

      That probably goes back to the 80’s and the debate between phonics and whole language instruction.

      • I agree and have made that point previously. Its heartening that an educator takes this position, as well.

        • I think there is some confusion, I believe Matt Hurt is the educator as I am not. My father was an educator and always took issue with the whole language concept vs phonics.

          • Dick Hall-Sizemore

            Oops. Wrong Matt. But you are still on the right side regarding phonics. I was taught by the whole language concept (See Spot run!). My wife used phonics to teach our daughter to read at an early age (2 1/2 to 3). Her reading speed and comprehension were amazing from the start.

          • That was the difference between myself and my sister (5 years apart). She was phonics and I was whole language. I know my own struggles with spelling, sentence diagramming and the like.

          • My wife who has her master’s in reading instruction would agree: The changes made in how reading is taught, the move away from phonics, was disastrous. And it came at the same time that students started spending all their time with screens and not books….

          • This was along the lines of what I was asking for specifics for the CIP schools that are showing better SOLs even for ED.

            Are they teaching things like reading and math in certain ways different from other schools with lower SOL scores both ED and not ED?

            The implied premise of the “better” CIP schools is that perhaps other schools, like Richmond might adopt to better their scores.

            Finally, does VDOE, SHOULD VDOE, tell schools how to teach math and science? Is that their role?
            If it is how do we judge success or failure? Not the Governor usually – unless he made big changes to VDOE.

    • That’s yet another problem with being the only state where a sitting governor can’t run for reelection. Four years is never enough time to start a program of change and see that change occur. Eight years sometimes is sufficient. Our governors are no more accountable than UVa’s BoV.

      The state constitution needs to be rewritten.

      • I agree with you on this point. As it stands now, the governor has just really settled into office when the staff and Cabinet member begin looking for new jobs. In the past, there was a great deal of continuity in the agencies, with the agency directors serving multiple administrations. That is less the case now.

        • I’m sure the proposed constitutional amendments allowing a second term will be back in again. They are perennial. This is the proper year for first consideration.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        I can’t remember a governor in my adult life that was worthy of a second term. One and done is good for me. Although the deal Jefferson Davis had from CSA Constitution is worth considering. One six year term and you are out.

      • He/she can make the changes – the effects won’t really be felt until he/she is gone.

        The other thing is that folks hold the current governor responsible for things he may well have inherited and not had a hand in.

        I look at Smart Scale at VDOT. A really big change to the way they prioritize transportation projects. Can anyone name the folks who hand a hand in bringing Smart Scale online?

  10. LarryTheG’s graph shows that 43% are proficient. I have been told that proficient is the equivalent of a grade of D (or above). If 43% are proficient, that means that 57% have a grade of F. Is that so?

    • Maybe need to make sure what you’ve been told is true?

      The thing is that we’re tallking about ALL the states in the US – PLUS all the developed countries in the rest of the world.

      Do we know, for instance, what percent of OECD is “proficient” – probably not 100% right?

      So does that mean that the current public education system worldwide is a “failure”?

      And if so, is there some alternative that would do better?

    • Larry,

      As of this year the information in that article is fourteen (14) years old. An entire generation of children has passed through our public schools between then and now. Do you really believe an article that old is relevant to today’s public education systems?

  11. Speaking of watering down tests. Here is an 1895 8th grade graduation exam from Salina, Kansas:


  12. If you’re tallking about the relationship between NAEP testing and PISA – yes I do. I don’t think the protocols for NAEP testing have changed much if any.

    An Overview of Procedures for NAEP Assessment


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