What Can We Learn from Virginia’s Educational Outliers?

Chart credits: John Butcher

by James A. Bacon

One last set of graphics shedding light on the SOLs… Occasional contributor John Butcher graphed the correlation between 9th-grade reading pass rates and the percentage of economically disadvantaged (ED) children in Virginia’s school divisions. The big-picture conclusion: The percentage of economically disadvantaged children is the dominant variable accounting for a division’s SOL performance, explaining about 57% of the variation between divisions.

But that still leaves 43% left to be explained. Presumably, much of that 43% consists of variables within the school system. Such variables might include spending per pupil, student-teacher ratios, or the quality of teachers and principals.

In the search for clues, it might be worthwhile looking at outlier school divisions that beat and fall short of expectations by wide margins. The gold box indicates the City of Richmond school system, which has nearly 80% disadvantaged students. The City of Richmond school division starts with a big handicap… and goes downhill from there.

Then there’s Lancaster County, standing by itself in the lower, left-hand corner — the worst under-performer in the state. Lancaster has one of the lowest English SOL pass rates despite the fact that only one fifth of its students are disadvantaged. If there are no unique circumstance to explain that difference, the school board and parents need to start asking tough questions.

On the positive side, there are four outliers along the top of the chart. Perhaps we should be asking what those school systems are doing right.


This chart shows the correlation between the math SOL pass rate and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Math performance is less closely tied to socio-economic status. The percentage of disadvantaged students in the school division accounts for 42% of the variability, far less than for reading.

Butcher has identified the under-performing outliers in red: Lancaster County (left) and Buena Vista.  The green diamonds represent (from left) West Point, Wise and Bristol. As he concludes:

We might wonder why we’re not hearing from [the Virginia Department of Education] about what the outperformers are doing right (or whether they are cheating to get these numbers).  VDOE does have a massive (and massively manipulated) accreditation process; I’ve not seen any analysis that would show that it’s doing anything for the underperformers.

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8 responses to “What Can We Learn from Virginia’s Educational Outliers?”

  1. billsblots Avatar

    Who are the four overachieving Divisions in Reading, and who is the green diamond?

  2. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    Interesting but “Economically “Disadvantaged” means two different things depending upon where one lives.
    From VDOE:
    “Economically disadvantaged — a student who is a member of a household that meets the income eligibility guidelines for free or reduced-price school meals (less than or equal to 185% of Federal Poverty Guidelines.”
    Because this is not adjusted from NOVA to the hills, students from Highland that are at 180% are rich, relatively to where they live, and are not “economically disadvantaged.” A better look would be students that are economically disadvantaged in the locality in which they live.

  3. The green dot in the SOL Reading chart is Charles City County. The red dots are (from left) Hampton, Newport News and Norfolk.

  4. re: ” the percentage of economically disadvantaged (ED) children in Virginia’s school divisions.”

    have to be careful at the 10,000 ft level…

    because we also know – within the bigger school districts – there are “outlier” schools that do better with ED kids than other schools in the same district.

    so what would such a plot look like for , say, Henrico?

    why does this matter?

    because the outliers seem to be more successful at overcoming the ED and other demographic and cultural influences and probably as such ought to perform as best practices models – as opposed to a conclusion that ED takes scores down – no matter what but only looking at the non-outliers.

    In other words, one can take one of two perspectives –

    1. ED is a societal force external to the schools ability to mitigate it – shown by the overwhelming numbers. The schools can’t change society.

    2. ED is something schools CAN do something about but they can’t function like most schools do. They have to teach differently.

    The numbers prove they can succeed but we tend to minimize that success by relegating them to “outlier” status like it’s not a purposeful strategy that works but instead , happenstance ..an anomaly.

  5. The reason to look for positive outliers is to see what those school divisions might be doing right so their example might be emulated.

    The reason to look for negative outliers is to see what those school divisions are doing wrong, and to light a fire under the local powers-that-be to enact serious reform.

    1. The chart, in my view (sorry Hill City Jim) – tends to depict the problem as systemic and not easy to fix which is exactly what a lot of school districts would probably find supportive of their current efforts.

      why not do a chart showing the outliers from each school district then showing the rest of the schools that are more typical?

      the conventional wisdom seems to depict the issue as one of societal problems that schools can’t fix…

      in some on your own narratives – you tread along those lines implying that “culture” and single-parent families are behind the school performance issues…

      yet the outliers even within school districts, seem to contradict that view – assuming they are dealing with the same “culture” and “single parent” demographics.

      or – at the least – indicate that regardless of what the exact nature of the societal influences – that there are, in fact, teaching strategies that can work.

      I will, at Hill CIty Jims behest – endeavor to tamp down my blowhard tendencies – especially now that we seem to have a more active group of commenters..

      this particular subject is near the top of the thing that I think – as people – we need to confront – both as a moral issue involving innocent kids but also as a fiscal issue that damages our economy and damages our ability to compete globally.

  6. Where did you get the percent of disadvantaged students in the school districts?

  7. re: ” A better look would be students that are economically disadvantaged in the locality in which they live.”

    DonR has made this same point – and I agree.

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