RICHMOND, Va. -- Weeks behind schedule, Virginia's education department has released the results of last school year's Standards of Learning tests, which are used to measure student achievement and proficiency in core subjects.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his administration leaders said the scores show that students continued to fall behind due to pandemic learning loss and showed minimal signs of improvement. Calling it a "dark moment," they placed most of the blame for low achievement on the previous administration's decisions made during the pandemic.
"We have a generation that is at risk," Youngkin announced during a press conference Thursday. "That learning loss is incredibly hard to recover, and in fact, our youngest students, the third through eighth graders who never had the opportunity to truly learn the foundations those building blocks for the rest of life, they do not rebound at the flip of a switch."
The 2021-2022 statewide numbers, which were initially supposed to be published on Aug. 17 but delayed several weeks, showed no signs of progress in some subjects and slight gains in others.
Here's a look at the SOL pass rates from this past school year:
- History: 65% (-1 from the previous year)
- Reading: 73% (No improvement from the previous year)
- Writing: 65% (No improvement from the previous year)
- Math: 69% (+3 from the previous year)
- Science: 67% (+2 from the previous year)
When it comes specifically to third through eighth graders, education leaders said half of the state's students are failing or at risk of failing reading and two-thirds are failing or at risk of failing math.
The gap widened for Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, disabled, and English-learning students as those student groups continue to see proficiency in reading and math well below pre-pandemic levels.
“What we know is that our students aren't meeting proficiency in pre-pandemic worlds. They are not performing like their pre pandemic peers," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Lisa Coons.
For a second year in a row, Youngkin's administration pointed the finger at Gov. Ralph Northam's administration's decision to close schools for too long during the COVID-19 crisis.
“The previous administration's failure to prioritize opening schools created a culture that lowered expectations not only around academics, but also around homework and attendance," said Youngkin's Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera.
But the Virginia Education Association (VEA), a progressive teacher's union, said that take is unfair, unsympathetic, and dismissed the fact that school closures were tough decisions that aimed to save human life.
"Rather than take accountability for his administration’s failures, Governor Youngkin continues to blame languishing SOL scores on anyone but himself," said Dr. James J. Fedderman, President of VEA. "The governor came into office promising to transform public education, but after two years all he has to show is a string of bungled proposals, administrative scandals, a proposed budget with cuts to K-12 spending in the second year, and stagnating test results."
Governor Youngkin responds to parents' criticism of Virginia learning grants
On Thursday, Youngkin also unveiled a three-pillar plan to combat learning loss.
$418 million allocated in the state budget will be distributed among local school divisions for flexible use. The smallest amount a district will receive is $150,000. According to language in the budget, the funds are meant for "the implementation of the Virginia Literacy Act, learning loss recovery, and additional operating and infrastructure support."
Youngkin is pushing divisions to use 70% of the money they receive to implement high intensity tutoring programming. He wants students who are at risk of failing to get 18 weeks of tutoring and students who are failing to get 36 weeks of tutoring in small group settings.
The governor said school divisions are being "empowered" to find staffing, such as retired teachers or pastors, and use their "creativity and capabilities" to implement the tutoring programs.
“You mentioned that school districts will have to use their creativity to implement it. Do you have any other type of guidance for districts?” reporter Tyler Layne asked Governor Youngkin.
“I know the superintendent and the secretary are looking forward to working with school divisions to make sure that best practices are shared very quickly on how staffing and how programs are being run and materials are being used. The great thing is there is an absolute wealth of materials and supplies and curriculum that exists that will be shared broadly across the Commonwealth," Youngkin said.
Youngkin said he'd like the tutoring programs up and running by Oct. 16, a timeline that the VEA called "delusional." The organization said the governor's plan offers "no real solution" and the biggest barrier to high dosage tutoring is finding staff.
The rest of the governor's plan recommends that school districts use 20% of their funding to promote the Virginia Literacy Act and 10% to address chronic absenteeism.
Youngkin says new task force will combat chronic absenteeism in Virginia schools
According to Dr. Coons, one in five Virginia students are chronically absent from the classroom, which means they miss two or more days of school per month. That's compared to one in 10 students back in the 2018-19 school year.
Absenteeism came up during an August Board of Education meeting, and board members expressed mixed opinions on who should be responsible for ensuring kids get to school and whether districts have enough resources to dedicate toward the effort.
"I absolutely think schools have the capacity and resources, and should have the accountability, to do everything they can to get scholars to school," said board member Mashea Ashton.
"All schools aren't the same. Some schools may have bandwidth to make it work, not all. Some of the schools are using their limited resources towards absenteeism," said board member Dale Sturdifen.
Board member Dr. Alan Seibert also weighed in saying schools "don't have much control" over absenteeism.
Youngkin said his administration is developing an absenteeism and transportation task force to ensure Virginia's students are showing up for school and is seeking input from community leaders, business leaders, and parents.
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