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Youngkin criticizes SOL scores, sets sights on in-person learning

Gov. Glenn Youngkin addresses the media.
Crixell Matthews
Gov. Glenn Youngkin said in a tweet that the test scores show the lasting impacts of learning loss from the pandemic, which he attributed to online education. He stated plans to move forward from “lowering standards” and “misleading averages.” (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The results of the Virginia Standards of Learning tests for the 2021-2022 school year, released Thursday by the Department of Education, show more students passed than in the previous school year.  

However, pass rates are below pre-pandemic levels. During the 2020-2021 school year, testing was optional for many students and localities didn't all administer the same tests. 

Math scores dipped below pre-pandemic levels, falling 16% since 2019. The passage rate for reading is 5% lower than it was in 2019, according to the newly released state numbers. Virginia Department of Education representatives said at a Thursday press conference that the percentage change in reading is smaller, in part, because the department lowered standards for the exam. 

State Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said she wanted to emphasize that this is not a time to condemn, but an opportunity to improve.  

“This moment, when we are talking about data is one where we cannot focus on using the data for shame and blame,” Guidera said. “It is so important that how we approach this conversation around data is one about how to use this as a tool of continuous improvement.” 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin said in a tweet that the test scores show the lasting impacts of learning loss from the pandemic, which he attributed to online education. He stated plans to move forward from “lowering standards” and “misleading averages.” 

The only answer, according to the governor, is returning to in-person education, which school districts are required to offer under a state law passed in 2021.  

The education department also said it conducted an analysis that shows schools with higher in-person attendance rates scored higher on SOL tests in the 2020-2021 academic year. This was prior to the law requiring schools to offer in-person classes.

“This is a chance for our entire education system to work together to close the achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged and younger learners that arose during school shutdowns,” Youngkin said in the twitter statement. 

On all exams, students from minority groups — including Black students, Hispanic students, English Language Learner students and economically disadvantaged students — scored lowest on average. Guidera called this gap “almost immoral.” 

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a VCU professor who studies school segregation, told VPM News in May she worried that without context, focusing on test scores will create additional barriers to success. 

“The test scores fuel a rating, a really simplistic rating that often gets posted on the real estate websites,” Siegel-Hawley said. “And some researchers have called this educational redlining because it creates whole swaths and school zones and communities that families with means avoid because of the low test scores associated with the school without any kind of context.” 

Studies of high-stakes standardized testing have consistently shownthat it worsens both racial and income-based school segregation. 

“Segregation operates on the basis of stigma. You make something separate and then unequal, and then it becomes a reinforcing cycle of segregation,” Siegel-Hawley said. 

When asked by VPM News in May how the state plans to ensure its recommendations don’t exacerbate existing racial segregation in Virginia public schools, Youngkin said, “I don’t agree with your initial premise. I think what we have, of course, are schools that have consistently underperformed, that in fact, have not been supported in a way to address the underperformance. Throwing money at a problem does not solve a problem.” 

In light of the SOL pass rates, Guidera said the state is developing new tools for every teacher and parent to get “actionable information” about their students. 

When asked about how to approach achievement gaps from an “equity” standpoint, Guidera said the word was “problematic, because everybody approaches it in a different way.” 

“My definition of equity, … is it allows us to see every child and meet every child where they are,” Guidera said.  

Lab schools, a focus of Youngkin’s agenda, are an example of Guidera’s definition of equity, she said, because they will work for traditionally underserved students. 

Some Democrats, however, have said they’re worried lab schools would have the opposite effect, taking away resources from already underfunded public schools.