We Can’t Explain Virginia’s Declining Test Scores — Just Trust Us and Give Us Mo’ Money

by James A. Bacon

The Richmond Times-Dispatch took a good hard look today at the alarming decline in reading scores by Virginia students in standardized tests, including both the state Standards of Learning (SOL) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But reporter Justin Mattingly came up dry in explaining what might have caused the lower scores, which represent a stark reversal from improving or steady scores over the previous decade. “Why scores are on the decline,” he writes, “is the million dollar question.”

Mattingly makes a remarkable statement in the article that deserves highlighting: “State education leaders — who aren’t sure why the scores have dropped so much —  are calling for $36 million to go toward new reading specialists.”

That’s not all they’re asking for. The State Board of Education is recommending the state increase support for K-12 education by $950 million next year. Virginia’s educrats can’t explain the decline in reading and math scores, but they still have the audacity to say, “Trust us to spend more of your money.”

The usual suspects, like the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, are backing them up. Providing no evidence to demonstrate an empirical link between the funding decline and student achievement, CI has been pounding the drums to remind legislators that state support, adjusted for inflation and increasing enrollment, is 8% less than before the Great Recession.

In searching for explanations, Mattingly quotes CI as noting that budget cuts have resulted in 2,239 fewer support staff members – positions such as social workers, custodians and psychologists — in Virginia schools than in 2008-09. Let’s see how CI’s fiscal numbers compare to academic performance.

As can be seen in CI’s graph above (found here) — focus on the red line (actual state support) — state support for K-12 bottomed out in Fiscal 2012 and has been recovering ever since. How does that compare to standardized test scores? This data comes from the Virginia Department of Education:

For ease of comparison, I have highlighted the post-recession years on these graphs. One can readily see that 4th-grade English reading scores continued to increase despite the cuts in spending, plateaued beginning in 2013 when spending was increasing again, and took a nose dive in the past two years. In other words, there is zero correlation between test scores and spending. Indeed, there might be a reverse correlation — more spending corresponding with lower scores.

The picture is similar for 8th graders. Reading test scores did decline in 2009 — continuing a trend that preceded the recession —  then rebounded, then plateaued, and then in 2019 took a nose dive. Again, no corrrelation with state support for K-12.

If state K-12 support has nothing to do with the problem, what other explanations are floating around?

Mattingly notes the significant demographic changes that have taken place in Virginia over the past decade. The percentage of English-as-Second-Language (ESL) students has increased significantly, as has the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Reading achievement is significantly correlated with ESL and disadvantaged status, so increasing numbers of both categories of students does create a tide against which educators must swim, to to speak. But Mattingly provides no data to suggest that the increase in ESL and disadvantaged students suddenly became a problem between 2017 and 2019.

One other possible explanation appears in the article. Mattingly quotes Valerie Robnolt, a Virginia Commonwealth University teaching and learning professor: “We’ve been so focused on teaching to the test and getting them ready for the test that sometimes we forget what the bigger picture is, which is for them to love to read and want to read.”

That explanation is so ludicrous I can’t believe it appeared in the story. While “teaching to the test” may be harmful in the way she describes, no evidence whatsoever is presented to suggest that “teaching to the test” is harmful to taking the test. Furthermore, no evidence is presented that “teaching to the test” suddenly became a huge problem in the 2017-to-2019 time frame.

(For the record, I’m not criticizing Mattingly, who is a conscientious reporter and one of the more productive writers on the Times-Dispatch staff. I’m criticizing the sources to whom he gives voice. Justin, you need to reach out and get more diverse points of view.)

It is safe to say that Virginia’s educational establishment has no clue what is happening. Yet there is a hint — perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a hint of a hint — in Mattingly’s story as to what’s going on. The decline in NAEP scores was a national phenomenon (though not as marked as in Virginia). Only one state — Mississippi — saw statistically significant increases to 4th-grade reading this year. Normally, we associate Mississippi with poor educational outcomes (indeed, Mississippi students might have improved from a low base) and low levels of educational spending. What else could account for its improvement?

Here’s a hypothesis: Mississippi is one of the most politically and culturally conservative states in the country, and its educational establishment, though not immune to the winds of political correctness and the “social equity” movement sweeping the country, is more resistant to it than other states.

Regardless of what may or may not be happening in Mississippi, we know that Virginia is the polar opposite of un-PC. The defining characteristic of Northam administration education policy over the past two years has been offsetting Governor Northam’s blackface embarassment with an emphasis on racial equity. The new policy has manifested itself in two ways: (1) by accelerating the imposition of “restorative justice” disciplinary policies in schools, already underway from previous years, and (2) indoctrinating teachers, staff, and administrators with racial-equity consciousness.

The bottom line: Never before has Virginia’s educational establishment been so politically correct and devoted to explicit racial-justice policies. Yes, previous administrations have sought to address the racial gap in educational outcomes, but none of them put “racial equity” as front and center as Northam has.

Now, there is only one person in the Commonwealth of Virginia who stuck out his neck in a public forum to argue that the restorative-justice disciplinary policies would have precisely the opposite effect intended and predicted that test scores would decline — and that is me. No one else saw this coming. So, I believe that my hypothesis of what’s behind the declining test scores deserves closer scrutiny.

I will go one step farther: Unless Northam reins in his social justice warriors, we will continue to see eroding reading and math achievement regardless of how much money we pump into a failing educational system. As always, those who suffer the most will be the minority students that the social-justice warriors purport to help. If Republicans want a good campaign issue two days before the 2019 legislative elections, they might try arguing that Northam is destroying Virginia’s public education system.

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20 responses to “We Can’t Explain Virginia’s Declining Test Scores — Just Trust Us and Give Us Mo’ Money

  1. Virginia is one of the 17 states that performed ‘significantly higher than the national public average. Here are the numbers … not sure about the cut offs.
    Grade 4: Math 87% at or above basic … 50% proficient
    Reading 69% 38%
    https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/profiles/stateprofile/overview/VA?cti=PgTab_OT&chort=1&sub=RED&sj=VA&fs=Grade&st=MN&year=2019R3&sg=Gender%3A+Male+vs.+Female&sgv=Difference&ts=Single+Year&tss=2015R3-2019R3&sfj=NP

    Jim is right to ask what that extra money is slated to accomplish. I think it is awful that only 38% of readers in 4th grade are considered ‘proficient’, a score that puts Virginia in the top level of the country. WOW! That leaves more than 30% unable to read in 4th grade! I don’t think racial justice, or discipline are the primary reason for so much failure.

    I have worked as a volunteer and a paid reading tutor. Two stories … 20 years ago I worked with a 20 something black woman in Phila. who had gone through 8th grade in the system but couldn’t read. I asked her why she was learning now and she said that she had 2 little kids she wanted to be able to read with … Lovely!

    And in NC, once a week, I taught a 3rd grader how to read. He just needed a little attention and a strategy to take a run at words he didn’t know. When he finished a book I asked him to take it home and read it to his little brother. Asked if he had done so, he said “NO … I read it to my WHOLE family.” More lovely!

    Now … what I don’t really get is why these 2 hadn’t succeeded. It was not a hard job teaching them one on one. We are doing something wrong when we fail to teach so many because there are so many things you can’t do when you can’t read. There has to be a better way. Would adding individualized programs on technology do a better job? Any ideas?

  2. Jim, you are reaching here. Mississippi’s scores increased because it is politically and culturally conservative? Really? What about Idaho, North and South Dakota, Utah, etc.? Have they all of a sudden become politically and culturally liberal, explaining why their test scores declined?

    And the fourth-graders who took the test this year started learning to ready (not learning to read, as the case may be) years before Northam’s emphasis on restorative justice. And it takes more time than that for education trends to shift.

  3. Jim post is a good start in our unraveling here on Bacon’s Rebellion what the Richmond Times Dispatch’s Justin Mattingly calls the “Million Dollar question.” “Why Virginia scores are on the decline” over the past decade, thought in fact, those scores have been in decline for six decades at least, although cleverly hidden by the regular watering down of student tests by the education establishment. I am confident that we here on Bacon’s Rebellion will unravel this “mystery” in relatively short order, hopefully in time to neuter the fool’s errand proposal of the Northam Administration to spend $950 million dollars in ways that will only double down on our failed education policies as implemented and refined over the last six decade. If passed by the General Assembly these policies will only deepen the hole our kids are in, instead of giving them the tools and means to climb out of that great hole our educational establishment has shoved them into. And it is a huge hole, believe me.

    However, thanks to rough accuracy the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test we can see portions of the gigantic size and depth of that hole so cleverly disguised over the years by Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests that overstate the achievements of disadvantaged kids by nearly a factor of four (NAEP’s 17% pass rate versus VA’s SOL pass rate of 65%) and the pass rate of all our students by more than double (NAEP’s 37% pass rate versus VA’s SOL pass rate of 78%).

    But even the NAEP test taken alone fails to tell the whole awful story of the collapse of American secondary education, not only for disadvantaged students also for advantaged students. For example as late as early 1960s our public high school students ranked number one in the World, including all industrial nations. Today, our very best public schools districts such as Fairfax Virginia fall in the bottom half (49%) of the 34 industrialized nations (OECD) while the Beverly Hills Cal. school district, one of the nations very wealthiest, could manage to reach only the 53rd percentile. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. More information will come here soon.

    Meanwhile, part of the answer to Mr. Mattingly’s mystery is found in several recent comments found in:

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/are-sw-virginia-schools-doing-something-right/

    And of course, as Jim points out, all students can learn only in disciplined, safe, and inspired classrooms that recent so called “social justice” classroom policies now insure will never happen in far too many Virginia schools where learning is nearly impossible for most kids, no matter their talents and efforts. Far too many Virginia schools today actively work to destroy the futures of the kids forced to sits in their classrooms. We got to change that.

  4. Hello Apple.

    There are an abundance of stupid policies in public schools and I’m sure others are better qualified to discuss them since my personal experience with government school ended with the graduation of my eldest in 2012. The dumbed down reading list is probably the easiest to amend. My homeschooled daughter’s middle school reading list (AmblesideOnline) eclipsed my son’s IB diploma list.

    That said, phones and gaming are a widespread, ubiquitous and documented hindrance to learning across all demographics. There are multitudes of recent book titles discussing this. My reading includes Deep Work and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, Irresistible by Adam Alter, Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle, and addressing a side effect, Nature Fix by Florence Williams.

    Of course, school administrators are helplessly enthralled and pathetically impotent against the overwhelming influence of tech which they foolishly invited in and which is now sucking the life out of everyone on the premises.

    Parents should toss the smart phones, make their kids read Irresistible, (seriously, no one likes being a tool) and homeschool. The will to fix public schools is non-existent.

  5. Glad you and Jim liked my stories. Here is one more … a different issue source from the 3rd grade low income boy and the ‘graduated 8th grade’ black woman.

    This is a first grade boy whose parents hired me to tutor him when his first grade teacher said he was falling behind. After 2-3 sessions I realized he didn’t understand what I said sometimes … my thought … does anyone talk to this boy? Turns out his Mom wanted him to be bi-lingual and so they brought his Grandmother from Africa to live with them. They spoke Swahili at home! Dad was so happy to hear me say how smart that boy was, which was very clear, Granny went home, the boy was not relegated to English as a second language class, and Mom and child visited every summer.

    So, having served on my CT school Board, I think the issue is inertia and how hard it is to change. In those days it was a ‘noone can write a paper’ issue. We researched new methods, raised the budget for staff continuing ed and brought several departments together to integrate their work. It worked but it took concentration on staff and administrators, not so much on the kids or all those other ‘social’ things.

    • Another lovely story and keen observation, Jane.

      All serious educators that I have read and trust believe that parents (adult caretakers) reading stories to their kids at night and otherwise engaging in constructive human to human “games” of all sorts, (reading, singing, dancing, laughing, smiling talking, talking, talking, etc. etc.) with their kids, and later bringing other peer kids regularly into their child’s play universe, is the one essential ingredient to their child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development experience as a infant, toddler, and preschooler, without which that child will be hopelessly behind his peers out in the real world, starting in his Kindergarden and likely will never catch up with his peers or the demands of world around him, thus likely will fail from 1s grade straight on through 12th grade, the kid’s entire education aborted from beginning to end. This happens far to often in America. Plus this can happen at many times along the way in America’s schools and communities today, with irreversible results.

      Sadly, too, the kids mother and/or father, and/or family bonding experience, for all of them is far too often aborted too. This is the full catastrophe, because this is the center of most all of our lives, and any successful society worth having and living in. BUT THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO HAPPEN. And it can be reversed, as your stories point out.

      That reverse scenario, however, as one of your wonderful stories points out, is that child arrival and its development, and the school’s intervention, is the vehicle by which Child’s mother, father, and grandparents, can grow up along with the child, and be educated in all sorts of ways along with kid. Today, in our atomized society of lonely souls, this is what a great school system must deeply appreciate, and know how to, and be determined to do. Without that, millions upon millions and kids and families have been lost in America, with terrible human, social, and economic consequences, raging over the past 60 years as a result of our failing education systems understanding of what it takes to truly educate a child.

  6. I’m curious how we start out talking about SOL scores and end up talking about racial justice….

    The other thing – if we CUT funding during the recession – why is it a bad thing to restore it now?

    Jane zeroed in on the significant issue: ” I think it is awful that only 38% of readers in 4th grade are considered ‘proficient’, a score that puts Virginia in the top level of the country. WOW! That leaves more than 30% unable to read in 4th grade! I don’t think racial justice, or discipline are the primary reason for so much failure.”

    Do we KNOW – WHO the 62% who are not proficient ARE:

    not only in terms of race – but in terms of other demographics AND on a specific school basis – and identified as to which school district?

    How about the “top” 100 – academically deficient schools – and what school districts they are in.

    In terms of Jim’s “hypothesis” – mixing that in with hard data … I dunno guy. If you’re gonna do that – I think you have to back it up more than just throwing it out there… like a dead fish.

  7. Larry, I did not state that very well …about the 30% who can’t read.
    There are 2 categories of readers 69% of total are :at or above basic level’ and 38% of total are ‘proficient’, is the way I read those numbers. The ‘above basic’ are included in the 69%. The rest are the 31% that are below basic level.
    I don’t know how they define basic and proficient…..

  8. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/achieve.aspx

    Fourth-grade students performing at the NAEP Proficient level should be able to integrate and interpret texts and apply their understanding of the text to draw conclusions and make evaluations.

    When reading literary texts such as fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction, fourth-grade students performing at the NAEP Proficient level should be able to identify implicit main ideas and recognize relevant information that supports them. Students should be able to judge elements of author’s craft and provide some support for their judgment. They should be able to analyze character roles, actions, feelings, and motives.

    When reading informational texts such as articles and excerpts from books, fourth-grade students performing at the NAEP Proficient level should be able to locate relevant information, integrate information across texts, and evaluate the way an author presents information. Student performance at this level should demonstrate an understanding of the purpose for text features and an ability to integrate information from headings, text boxes, graphics and their captions. They should be able to explain a simple cause-and-effect relationship and draw conclusions.

    I think folks can see that this starts to get into things that require folks with a background in education to really understand – AND to be able to have further conversation about what might be done to improve.

    I’m not denigrating the critics per se – but many of them are just focused on really simplistic concepts and the “score”.. from which to then condemn and call “failure”.

    I’d like to see these same standards applied to non-public schools and home schooling so we can truly have apple-to-apple comparisons.

  9. “I’m not denigrating the critics per se – but many of them are just focused on really simplistic concepts and the “score”.. from which to then condemn and call “failure”.”

    Good point, Larry, but it’s not the critics pushing the tests and their score buttons, but the state governments and their boards of education. The critics by and large don’t believe in these tests, except to extent that the few honest ones of them keep the state scam artists tests to account. The real issues are far larger than these very limited tests, which as applied by the states, and sometimes by the Feds. often defeat the effective teaching and meaningful learning of kids, and their getting and ending up with real educations. These are tests of mostly irrelevant skills, not of learning, knowledge and vocabulary, and how to wields them effectively.

  10. I think we sometimes emphasize test scores at the expense of other school functions.

    For better or worse, kids attend school / after school activities for the majority of their waking hours. The best schools promote socialization, physical development, ethics, play, nutrition, resiliency, critical thinking, and ideally provide after-school childcare or high-quality extracurriculars. If we are to live in a society in which two parents must work 45+ hours a week, I suggest we re-think the modern public school and what that model realistically costs. Our assigned public elementary school is “high–performing.” It is also depressing, old, test-obsessed, and ill-equipped to nurture and educate the whole-child. We are fortunate to have found another school that does, but pay dearly for it.

    I 100 percent favor higher support of our “high-performing” public school.

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