December 2, 2022


The Education People

Pre-COVID Test Results Show a Failed Public Education System

by James C. Sherlock

I have questions in my own mind about the quality of Virginia public schools.

In search of answers I invested several weeks full time in building into a spreadsheet what I consider some of the critical metrics among both Virginia public schools in general and ten different school districts that I chose.  

For each of those districts I recorded data on: 

  • demographic groups by racial cohort, economically disadvantaged, and English learners;
  • school investment; 
  • chronic absenteeism; 
  • SOL reading and math performance of each demographic group in each district; and  
  • Compared them to state averages in each metric.

I chose and paired the ten different school districts (of 133) in an attempt to get a cross section of urban, suburban and rural districts in Northern Virginia, the Richmond area, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads and Southern Virginia.

I used the 2018-19 school year, the last year before COVID, to provide a baseline for learning losses and what those schools need to do going forward.  

The data reveal enormous problems with the basic building blocks of education. 

Performances by Virginia students statewide on standardized math and reading tests in 2018-19 were objectively terrible. The only way to read those results is that many of the public schools and some entire school districts are broken. 

The Board of Education writes in its preamble and vision statement that its primary focus is equity:

“The mission of the Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction, in cooperation with their partners, is to develop policies and provide leadership that improve student achievement and prepare students to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace, and to become engaged and enlightened citizens.”

Equal opportunity is very important, but it needs to be attained in a successful school environment, not one in which a large number of kids cannot read or multiply. Virginia’s SOL reading and math pass rates, confirmed by NAEP exams in the same year, show that many public schools have failed. Utterly.  

Before COVID learning losses.

School Systems Chosen for evaluation. Note the pairings I chose to get representation from urban, suburban and rural districts with pairs from Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond area, Southern Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

  • Loudoun County
  • Fairfax County
  • Chesapeake 
  • Norfolk
  • Richmond City
  • Henrico County
  • Roanoke County 
  • Wise County
  • Martinsville
  • Henry County

Span of the data. I didn’t use all of the data available, but this is more than enough to draw rough conclusions for further investigation.

Pay attention to not just the values relative to the state and to other districts which are color-coded for easy visual reference. 

Pay attention to the absolute values, which are on the whole horrible, both in the SOL and NAEP test results.

I have provided data on state and school district demographics, school spending, chronic absenteeism broken out by racial cohorts and the disadvantaged and English learners cohort. Aligned with that information I have recorded Math and Reading SOL pass rates for each of the same cohorts in the state and each district.  

SOL. On the SOL a scaled score of 400 or higher of a possible 600 is considered passing. Those are the rates that you see. All items on SOL tests have been reviewed at least twice by committees of Virginia classroom teachers. Only items approved by these teachers as fair and aligned with the commonwealth’s subject and course content standards appear on SOL tests.

Color coding. Finally, I color coded the data fields to show visually how each district compares with the state averages in each field. The fields in dark green indicate the best performances among the 9 school districts; the fields in dark red the worst. The ones in between have appropriate colors in those spectra.

Relative SOL Performance of School Districts 2018-19. As you scan the spreadsheet, you will see some things you likely did not expect.  Or at least I did not. When looking at SOL pass rates across the demographic, economic and English learner cohorts, the school systems in my sample of 10 finished in the following relative order:

The Best. Glancing across the color-coded SOL relative performances for all of the demographics in each school system, the three top-performing school systems in both math and reading of the ten I chose were:

  • Wise County – easily the best
  • Chesapeake
  • Roanoke County

The Worst. Again, glancing across SOL results for all demographics, the worst performing school districts were:

  • Richmond – uniquely bad
  • Norfolk – poor, but does well in reading with Hispanics and English learners
  • Henrico County – poor, but does well with white kids

Key Factors 2018-19

I think every data point I recorded is important, but there are several that seem from the data to be somewhat determinant in reading and math performance.  

Ability to pay, spending per pupil, and percentage of school budget for instruction

Interestingly, spending per pupil does not show up as a controlling factor. Loudoun County spent $15,740 per student and had a generally good performance relative to the state and above average performances by Blacks and Asians but had bad results from their Hispanic and disadvantaged kids.

Wise County spent $9,684 per student and nearly every one of its demographic cohorts outperformed their counterparts in Loudoun.

Money spent per child generally aligns with ability to pay. The outliers there were Henrico, which ranked 42nd among 133 districts in ability to pay but spent $3,500 a year or 25% less per child than Richmond, which ranked 33rd in ability to pay.  

The other outlier was Martinsville, ranked 136th in ability to pay, spent $11,629 annually compared to surrounding Henry County, which ranked 133rd and spent almost $2,000 less per child. Much of that difference can be explained by the fact that Henry County spent 68% of its school budget on instruction compared to Martinsville’s 60%.

Henrico County spent the highest percentage of its school budget on instruction at 72.1%. State average was 67.5%.

Location. Urban systems chosen performed worse than suburban or rural systems;

Chronic absenteeism. Absenteeism mattered except in the case of Wise County, which posted the best SOL performances and some of the worst chronic absenteeism.  

Chesapeake turned in the best performance on chronic absenteeism. Not coincidentally, it had by far the most aggressive program in the state for referring kids and their parents to Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts for excessive absences.  

The districts with the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism among disadvantaged kids were Chesapeake and Roanoke County. Those with the highest absenteeism among that same cohort were Wise County and Richmond.  

Economically Disadvantaged. Percentages of disadvantaged kids, who generally underperform, matter, both to the teaching and the results. The success story was Wise County, with nearly 60% disadvantaged (state average 40%) and the highest SOL pass rates. 

English Language Learners. Percentages of English learners matter very significantly in overall school district SOL performance. Of course they underperform significantly. Statewide teacher shortages in that specialty make filling the teacher slots a big issue  It  adds another concern to the crisis at the border.  

Fairfax County had over 55,000 English learners composing nearly 30% of the student body, by far the highest percentage of any of the ten districts. I suspect that Fairfax County also teaches kids with more different native languages than any of the rest. Loudoun had 16% English learners.  

Wise County had only 20 English learners, 3 tenths of 1% of the student population. The lack of English learners seems to account for much of the district SOL performances overall but doesn’t explain the outperformance by its White kids and the massive outperformance by its Black kids in math. 

In fact, Wise County’s outperformance across the board in math was truly remarkable. None of the other ten counties was close. While Wise had only 20 English learners, it also had only 18 Asians.

Hispanics. The best results for Hispanics in reading and math were recorded in Wise County, Chesapeake, Martinsville and Roanoke County. Among those, only Martinsville has a significant percentage of English learners at 9%.

Asians. Asian kids significantly outperform every other demographic in reading and math and drive up overall SOL scores in Loudoun, with almost 25% Asians, Fairfax County with almost 20% and Henrico with 12.5%. Those were the only districts among my ten with more than 4% Asian population.  

Competing factors. Wise County has almost no Asians, yet still outperformed Loudoun, Fairfax and Henrico. That may indicate that English learners have a bigger impact to the down side than Asians have to the upside of district SOL averages.

Surprisingly, at least to me, Hispanic and disadvantaged kids underperformed state averages in math and reading in both Loudoun and Fairfax Counties. That correlates with those counties’ outsized percentages of English learners that are likely both Hispanic and disadvantaged.

Statewide National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing 2018-19

The NAEP test is given periodically to specific grades in schools nationwide.  That program provides each state its grades but does not break them down any further. Tests in math and English reading were given to Virginia 4th graders in the 2018-19 school year.

The attached spreadsheet contains a segment that provides those 2018-19 NAEP scores.

Those tests tell us a lot about the academic performance of our schools and also provide a reference point against which to measure the efficacy of SOLs in those subjects given to Virginia 4th graders in the same year, which I will show in the next installment.  

The NAEP tests appear to be tougher than the SOLs. Our kids tested very poorly on them. Again, I am talking in absolute rather than relative (to other states) terms.  

Two examples — the rest can be seen in the spreadsheet:

  • Only 48% of Virginia 4th graders tested proficient or better in math, 39% proficient or better in reading.   
  • 49% of Virginia’s Black 4th graders tested below basicilliterate — in reading, only 19% proficient or better. Fourth grade is, as we know, the first year in which kids are expected to start to read to learn.  
  • I’ll say it again. Half of Virginia’s Black 4th graders could not read.

That is utterly unacceptable and ruinous for those children. And the VDOE thinks its most important mission is equity, not basic math and reading skills.  

It is impossible to consider those results as outliers. There were too many children tested. They did not have learning to lose in COVID.  

And most have now finished the 6th grade. Retention in grade rates are very low.

Source of Data / Add your favorite school district

Your local school district may not be the exception that you may think it is  If I did not choose yours, you can add it to the spreadsheet to see how it compares.  

The source of the data was VDOE School Quality Profiles both the State Report and Browse by Division.  

Having selected either the state or a school division, Click Enrollment for those data, Assessments for SOL scores, and ESSA for chronic absenteeism.  

  • In Enrollment, click on show data to get fall membership by subgroup and use 2018-19 data to align with SOLs.  
  • In Assessments use 2018-19 SOL data.  Remember these are pass rates only.  Click on each cohort.
  • In ESSA, click on View 2019 ESSA School Quality Indicator … and scroll down to Chronic Absenteeism.  These are also 2018-19 data.

Next – Individual schools

This has been a very useful exercise for me. I learned a lot. The results could launch dozens of Ph.D and Ed.D theses.

Next time we will look at performances down to the individual school level in Chesapeake and Loudoun.  

I should have that finished in a couple of days. It is at least differently informative than this one.  

It will make the case for school choice — both charters and open enrollment — like nothing you may have ever seen.