Where Black Students Outperform Whites

In this table a negative gap indicates that disadvantaged Black students passed their English reading SOL tests at a higher rate than their White counterparts. Among Virginia’s 132 school districts, there were five such counties.

by James A. Bacon

A major concern arising from the latest Standards of Learning (SOL) data is the fact that the racial divide between Asians and Whites on the one hand and Blacks and Hispanics on the other has gotten wider over the past three years. This disturbing trend has occurred despite unprecedented efforts to reverse the achievement gap.

Liberals, conservatives and woke progressives all want to close that gap. Before effective action can be taken, however, it behooves us to understand the underlying causes — not only why a gap exists in the first place, but why it got worse despite such extensive measures to reverse it. How decisive was the COVID-driven shift to remote learning? Was systemic racism to blame? Conversely, have so-called “anti-racist” policies made things worse? Does the quality of local school management make a difference? What role does the prevalence of poverty, family structure and cultural values play?

As I observed in a recent post, the size of the racial achievement gap varies greatly between Virginia’s 132 school districts — from devastating 30- to 40-point gaps in cities like Richmond and Charlottesville to a handful of districts where Black students out-performed Whites when measured by the SOL reading pass rates.

Instead of dwelling on the disaster zones, which are well known and widely reported, perhaps we should look at success stories where gaps are minimal — indeed, where Black students pass at higher rates than Whites.

The table atop this post shows districts with the smallest Black/White pass rate gaps for economically disadvantaged students, while this one shows the districts with the smallest gaps for those who are not disadvantaged (meaning they do not qualify for free or subsidized lunch programs).

In five counties, disadvantaged Blacks out-perform disadvantaged Whites; in three counties, non-disadvantaged Blacks pass at higher rates than Whites.

Sad to say, the five counties where Blacks out-performed Whites do not reflect stellar pass rates for Blacks, but atrocious rates for Whites. Frederick County and Page County have among the lowest pass rates for disadvantaged Whites in the entire state. Do these counties have especially large concentrations of a rural, White underclass? Alternatively, are the school systems just abysmal? Sometimes outliers can tell us a lot. These cases are worth a closer look for someone willing to dig into them.

A similar observation can be made of the three counties where non-disadvantaged Blacks outscored their White peers. Non-disadvantaged Whites in King and Queen and Brunswick fell far short of the statewide average for Whites.

By contrast, I have highlighted (in blue) four counties where Blacks and Whites achieved virtual parity and both groups out-performed state averages by wide margins — Washington, Botetourt, Wise and Tazewell Counties. (Though not highlighted, Smyth County also belongs to this group.) It is not coincidental that all five are located in Western or Southwestern Virginia.

What might those districts have in common? Washington, Wise, Tazewell and Smyth all are located in rural/small town counties in Appalachia; Botetourt is a bedroom community for the Roanoke metropolitan area. Incomes of the first three have incomes below the state average (I’m not sure about Botetourt), and they spend  less per student than more affluent school districts. Blacks represent a small minority in each county; likewise, Blacks constitute small percentages of the schools’ student bodies. Politically and culturally, the four localities are all part of culturally conservative “red” Virginia. I would conjecture that the obsession with race that consumes many urban and suburban districts in Virginia’s major metros is less evident here.

Last and not least, all five districts participate in the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP) headed by Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Matt Hurt. That program is driven by data, not ideology. (It must be noted that Page County also is a member of CIP. While Blacks out-scored Whites in the English SOLs, both groups under-performed the state average.)

Here’s the safe conclusion: school districts that have participated in CIP long enough to implement its methodology not only out-perform other school districts but have smaller Black-White achievement gaps.

Here’s a more controversial conclusion (more of a hypothesis that requires verification, really): as small minorities in their communities, Blacks have taken on many of the cultural attributes of the dominant White Appalachian culture in which they are immersed. They are more likely than their peers in Virginia’s major metros to be religious, less likely to experience social pathology, and less likely to embrace Black urban culture that rejects “Whiteness” (to borrow a phrase from woke educators).

The two conclusions are not incompatible. Both can be true.

To see the Black and White pass rates for all Virginia school districts, download this PDF file.

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27 responses to “Where Black Students Outperform Whites”

  1. how_it_works Avatar

    It’s Page County where someone out of the blue asked me to borrow $100.

    Pretty sure that had I been dumb enough to give it to him, it would have been spent on heroin.

  2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    The question is: Where did Black disadvantaged student SIGNIFICANTLY outperform their White peers? The problem with having data available is that we often overlook the work significant. There is a statistical equation to the find significance. Without the scores of individual students, not pass rates of one category, it might be impossible to tell significance. I am very concerned we are reporting that it is doomsday due to the pandemic, maybe it really isn’t for most students? We need to ask the questions and then let expert statisticians find the answers.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    More evidence of CIP working wonders on a shoe string budget. Those schools highlighted by Mr. B are clobbering the big box school districts.

  4. Frederick County is less than 4% black. Out of that percentage, how many are economically disadvantaged. This is the same as pointing out that the state with the smallest gap between white and black performance on the NAEP test is North Dakota.

    1. “This is the same as pointing out that the state with the smallest gap between white and black performance on the NAEP test is North Dakota.”

      True. Are you curious why that might be?

      1. That the few blacks who live in North Dakota are either military, government employees, agricultural researchers, or academics. No poor blacks means no poor blacks pulling down the test scores.

    2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      Or Lexington, VA

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Interesting but small sample sizes. Buena Vista is 5.19% Black. The high school has 336 students. That roughly equates to 17 Black high school students. How many are economically disadvantaged and how many took the SOLs?

    Sussex County has 53.25% Black residents . Might be a larger sample size.

    1. True, we are looking at small sample sizes in each case (although VDOE suppresses results when the sample size is less than 50). But if the pattern extends to district after district, that suggests that something more than sample-size error is occurring.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      ” … although VDOE suppresses results when the sample size is less than 50 … ”


      Galax High School reports 24 Black students. I guess when you add K-8 he number is above 50, although economically disadvantaged would hold it down.

      Sussex and Frederick Counties are pretty big. Would be interesting to see what they are doing.


    3. Matt Hurt Avatar

      Those small numbers do screw up the results if you don’t control for them. However, there is a pretty interesting trend. The larger the enrollment of black students, the lower the pass rates for the black subgroup.


  6. David Wojick Avatar
    David Wojick

    Starter question: do all schools and students get the same test?

    1. Yes. The SOLs are a state-wide test.

      1. David Wojick Avatar
        David Wojick

        I know they are state wide but are they all the same? The NAEP are not.

        1. The SOL tests are the same throughout the Commonwealth.

          1. David Wojick Avatar
            David Wojick

            How do you know this? Not saying you are wrong just need the basis for your statement to be sure. I can think of several reasons why they might vary the questions.

          2. Look it up yourself on the DOE website.
            I’m not your research assistant.

            But let’s turn the question around. VDOE says the SOLs are a standardized tests.
            What evidence do you have that they are not standardized tests.

          3. David Wojick Avatar
            David Wojick

            No evidence either way, so asking an obvious basic question. What evidence do you have for your answer?

            Questions normally have reasons not evidence. For example if the tests are not all given at exactl,y the same time they might change questions to prevent leaks. Or they could vary the questions all at once to inhibit copying. Or to test new questions.

          4. Kathleen Smith Avatar
            Kathleen Smith

            They can and do vary tests. All tests are on line so they can change the order. Tests must follow the test blueprints. The blueprints are provided on the VDOE website. Good question.

          5. Kathleen Smith Avatar
            Kathleen Smith

            Also keep in mind, teachers help develop test questions, so no matter what test, the question has been vetted. This is an arduous process each summer.

          6. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
            James Wyatt Whitehead

            It’s the same test. In Loudoun it was done on laptops or in computer labs. No paper or pencil. Testing environment had many procedures to produce secure results. The order of the questions is scrambled for each individual. Expedited retakes or retakes due to absence also received the same test. Same test year after year. Every 4 or 5 years a new bank of questions.

  7. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    JAB proving he is racist…AGAIN!
    Suggesting behavior matters is…. (checking Smithsonian “guide”…) acting white!
    Behavior matters. Individual agency matters. I used to be a drunken frat boy. I grew up.

  8. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    King and Queen County at one time was paying for students to attend K12 online through Strides K12 Virginia Virtual. They did this for this reason, they received more in SOQ than it cost to let the students who were usually homeschooled be provided K12 online. How many of those white students were provided virtual education. In other words, did white flight to the virtual format pay King and Queen SOQ income and at the same time inadvertently lower the pass rate for white students? Another question the data does not tell us.

    Virtual schools pass rates should be posted, but that would mean that not only would Strides K12 be posted, but so would Virginia’s own virtual (Virtual Virginia not to be confused with the private Virginia Virtual) be posted. Maybe there is something to not posting the data?

  9. Looking at districts that did exceptionally well, figuring out what they are doing right (asking them would be a good start) and replicating it elsewhere is a good idea. We tend to focus on the failures and bemoan them, but that may not be productive in helping to make things better.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      The difference between failure and success may not be process but noise.

  10. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I will throw another factor into the mix. Of the four you highlighted in which “Blacks and Whites achieved virtual parity and both groups out-performed state averages by wide margins,” three are the homes of significant state facilities that employ a considerable number of people. Both the Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute and Marion Correctional Center are located in Smyth County. Two major state prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, are located in Wise. Tazewell County is home to Pocahontas Correctional Center, although one has to drive through a sliver of West Virginia to get to it, meaning that many employees may live in West Virginia. The availability of steady paying, if not overly high paying, jobs that include a good health insurance plan in an area that has been hard hit by unemployment and addiction to pain-killers may contribute to stable family lives, which are important to kids doing well in school. Just a thought.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      And a good thought it is. You’ll probably find a higher percentage of students who see education as an exit plan.

      Worked with a fellow who came from the western parts of Virginia. His father was a coal miner and he said he wasn’t going in the mines like his father. The way out is to leave.

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