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PolitiFact VA: Youngkin's school standards claim leaves out important context

Person speaking
Crixell Matthews
Gov. Glenn Youngkin visiting Richmond during his successful campaign. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Speaker: Gov. Glenn Youngkin
Statement: Virginia’s “education standards for math and reading are now the lowest in the nation.”
Date: Jan. 17
Setting: Speech

In his maiden speech to the General Assembly, Gov. Glenn Youngkin reaffirmed his campaign vow to stiffen academic standards in public schools.

“Virginia schools have a lofty reputation but lately we’ve not lived up to that reputation,” Youngkin, a Republican, said in a Jan. 17 address. “In fact, our educational standards for math and reading are now the lowest in the nation.”

We fact-checked Youngkin’s last-in-the nation claim during the campaign and think it bears repeating now that he’s in office. Federal research does show Virginia has the lowest baselines for student proficiency on its standardized tests of all measured states for fourth-grade math and reading and eighth-grade reading. This comparison only measures the rigor of various state standards, however, not how well students are learning.

When it comes to performance on standardized national exams, Virginia’s fourth graders rank near the top and its eighth graders rank high in math and at the national average in reading. Youngkin does not offer this important perspective.   

Youngkin’s bottom-of-the-barrel claim is based on a 2021 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education. The center examined the proficiency standards in each state in 2019 and assigned them "equivalent scores" on a 0-to-500 scale. Higher scores mean higher standards.

"The study is intended to help readers understand the myriad state assessment results that are otherwise difficult to compare and to serve a policy need for reliable information that compares state standards," the report says. "The study is not an evaluation of the various state assessments or of the quality of the states’ achievement standards, and the findings should not be interpreted as evidence of deficiencies in state assessments…"

In other words, the study is not judging whether state proficiency standards on tests  should be high, low or in the middle. It’s just offering data.

The report focuses on reading and math tests in fourth and eighth grades.

The equivalent score compares the percentage of students who are deemed proficient on state tests to the percentage that reach the proficiency standard on national tests.

Virginia’s exams are called Standards of Learning tests, or SOLs, and are taken by all fourth and eighth graders, as well as some other grades. The national exam is taken by a representative sample of fourth and eight graders in each state. It’s called National Assessment of Education Progress but is better known as the "Nation’s Report Card."

Virginia’s numbers

In fourth grade reading, Virginia’s proficiency standards were the lowest among 49 states (excluding New Hampshire). The equivalent score was 200. The median score among states was 224. Tennessee had the highest score at 238.

In fourth grade math, Virginia standards were again the lowest among 49 states. The equivalent score was 219. The median was 242. Colorado had the highest score at 257.

In eighth grade reading, Virginia’s proficiency standards were lowest among 46 states measured. The equivalent score was 236. The median was 266. Kansas was highest, at 288.

Virginia’s standards for eighth grade math were not measured, nor were those of 14 other states. The reason — according to Charles Pyle, director of media relations for the Virginia Department of Education — is that eighth graders take different math classes based on their abilities, so there is not a single standardized math exam for everyone.

Experts stress that equivalent scores do not evaluate how well students are learning.

"What Virginia considers proficient may not be at the same level of what other states consider proficient," Grady Wilburn, a statistician for the National Center for Education Statistics, told us last fall. "It doesn’t mean that the students know less than students in other states."

Indeed, Virginia fourth graders in 2019 had the third-highest math score on the national test and the ninth-highest reading score.

Virginia eighth graders ranked seventh in math and 30th in reading.

Youngkin says Virginia’s public schools have strayed from basic instruction under the last two Democratic governors, Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe, who led the state from 2014 to 2022. Youngkin says the state’s standardized tests should require students to attain high, aspirational learning levels.

Virginia’s proficiency standards for reading were set in 2013 by a state school board appointed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. The math standards were set in 2019 by a state school board appointed by McAuliffe and Northam. 

McAuliffe deemphasized standardized testing when he was governor from 2014 to 2018, a move that was cheered by many local school boards and gained bipartisan support in the General Assembly.

Dan Gecker, president of the state school board, said Virginia’s proficiency standards are set with a practical goal rather than an aspirational one. "We’re looking to set the cut level at a specific body of knowledge for a child to succeed at the next grade level," he said.

Our ruling

Youngkin said Virginia’s “education standards for math and reading are now the lowest in the nation.”

He is referring to a federal study that shows Virginia in 2019 had the lowest baselines for proficiency on its standardized tests for fourth grade math and reading and eighth grade reading. The National Center for Education Statistics does not compare test standards for other grades.

Youngkin’s statement, however, skips important context. The NCES stresses that its equivalency ratings on standardized tests in states do not reflect how well students are learning in each state. Youngkin omits that Virginia students score near the top on standardized national tests for fourth grade math and reading and eight grade math. Eighth grade leading levels are at the national average.

Youngkin’s claim, without elaboration, wrongly suggests that Virginia students are being taught less than their colleagues across the county.

So we rate his statement Half True.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin,  Address to the joint General Assembly, Jan. 17, 2022
PolitiFact Virginia, “ Are Virginia's school standards the lowest in the nation, as Youngkin says?” Oct. 20, 2021
Glenn Youngkin, Op-ed, The Washington Post, Sept. 2, 2021
Youngkin, WNIS radio Interview, Aug. 13, 2021 (10:54 mark)
National Center for Education Statistics, “ Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales,” 2019
NCES, “ Technical Notes,” 2019
The Nation’s Report Card, State profiles, 2019
Interview with Charles Pyle, Director of Media Relations at the Virginia Department of Education, Oct. 6, 2021
Interview with George Bohrnstedt, Senior vice-president of the American Institutes of Research, Oct. 4, 2021
Interview with Grady Wilburn, statistician for the National Center for Education Statistics, Oct. 14, 2021
Interview with Dan Gecker, president of the Virginia Board of Education, Oct. 18. 2021
Education Week, “ No Child Left Behind: An Overview,” April 10, 2015
Virginia Board of Education, Agenda items, Jan. 10, 2013 and March 21, 2019