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Virginia education officials have made tackling the student achievement gap a top priority in Virginia after standardized test scores showed statewide declines.

Virginia’s pass rates, calculated from the Standards of Learning and Virginia Alternate Assessment Program tests, showed that all students performed better than the previous year in 2021-22, when districts had returned to in-person learning.

However, officials said the results are still there below the baseline of the state. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has emphasized the role that prolonged school closures are playing in underperforming.

The Virginia Mercury took a closer look at the data and possible factors behind the learning loss. Here are four takeaways:

Southern Virginia, including much of Southside, was hit hardest

Region 8, which includes much of Southside, including Halifax, Mecklenburg, and Appomattox, saw the largest decreases in pass rate in multiple subjects compared to the other regions, closely followed by Region 1, which includes portions of central Virginia and the Tri area -Cities includes.

Data from Region 8 showed the largest declines from pre-pandemic performance levels in writing, history and social sciences, and science.

A possible reason for the sharp declines could be the large concentration of economically disadvantaged students in the region. Data from the Virginia Department of Education shows that 56% of students in Region 8 are economically disadvantaged, compared to 40% in Region 4 in Northern Virginia.

Students are considered economically disadvantaged if they are eligible for Medicaid or free and reduced meals, receive temporary assistance, or are identified as either migrants or homeless.

Laura Goren, research director at the nonprofit Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, said students who attended high-poverty schools experienced the largest drop in ratings nationwide, due to factors such as reduced access to technology and tutoring services during the pandemic.

“I think if we look at education levels, it’s clear that some families are better able to support students outside of what the school is able to do, and low-income families often have trouble doing that,” Goren said.

She also said that instability due to a family’s low income can negatively impact academic performance.

Reading saw the smallest falls, while Science saw the largest

All eight regions in Virginia saw minimal declines in reading success rates compared to pre-pandemic rates, with declines ranging from 4.2 to 7.04 percentage points. Nationwide, reading scores fell by an average of 5.4 points.

Public Instruction Superintendent Jillan Balow said during an Aug. 18 news conference that reading rates are higher than they should be due to the State Board of Education’s decision to adjust Virginia’s English and math standards in 2020.

Members of the Board of Directors denied the claims after Balow a 34-page report that detailed policies and priorities that the Youngkin administration says led to lower student performance.

All eight regions in Virginia saw the largest decreases from pre-pandemic rates in Science, with decreases ranging from 14.93 to 18.80 percentage points. Nationwide, science pass rates dropped 16 points. Region 6, which includes school districts in western Southside and portions of the Roanoke and New River valleys, had the smallest drop, at 14.9 points.

Education officials said new tests from the Alternate Assessment Program in science made available to students with significant cognitive disabilities in Grades 5 and 8 and in high school in 2021-22 could have impacted science outcomes.

In addition, science exams cover content taught in multiple classes. The 5th grade test includes content taught in grades 4 through 5, and grades 6 through 8 content is included in the 8th grade test.

Officials said student performance on the tests “may have been affected to a greater extent by the pandemic-related disruption than tests covering content taught in a single year”.

Insufficient access to technology may have hampered performance in the southern regions

Two years ago, schools across Virginia gave students laptops and other devices so they could attend classes from home.

However, connecting to the internet was a challenge for some students. Poor connections, weak signals, or a lack of technology and broadband access could potentially have led to learning disabilities.

Commonwealth connectiona nationwide partnership group focused on achieving universal broadband access said in a 2019 study that there is a difference between slow and fast access in rural areas.

Virginians also face higher costs and lower service due to the lack of competition among broadband providers, the study found.

It found that 47% of Virginians live in areas with one or no high-speed broadband service and 52.2% have access to two or more options. Only 1.6% have access to three or more service provider options.

Legislators agreed last year Commonwealth connectiona web tool developed by the Department of Housing and Community Development and Virginia Tech to collect data from internet service providers.

Data from the web tool shows that just 38% of homes in Greensville County, which has the fourth largest student population in Region 8, had access to broadband as of 2021. The data also shows that locations in Southside and the eastern part of the Northern Neck also saw a lack of broadband access compared to the rest of the Commonwealth.

Amelia, Brunswick and Charlotte are among the locations from the southern region of the VDOE to apply for grant funds expand broadband services in their jurisdictions.

Tom Allison, senior associate for finance policy and innovation at the State Council of Higher Education, wrote During the pandemic, students in each community will need different policy solutions. He said some students in counties such as Fluvanna or Louisa may need assistance with broadband access, while others in Portsmouth and Norfolk may need help paying for technology equipment.

“Like many other issues, COVID-19 has exposed the injustices our students face in digital learning,” Allison wrote. “But it also offers the opportunity to react comprehensively to the challenges of the digital divide.”

Test participation levels are starting to move back to near normal

In 2021-22, compared to the previous school year, Virginia saw greater participation by students taking their federally required placement tests, according to education officials.

Charles Pyle, communications director for the Virginia Department of Education, said in an email to Mercury that attendance is about 99% in typical school years. But in the 2020/21 school year, only 75.5% of students in the tested classes passed the reading test, 78.7% the math test and 80% the science test.

Balow said turnout had increased to over 95% for the 2021-22 school year.

Pyle didn’t specify which schools or school districts saw the increase in his response, but said participation has increased in 2020-21 due to more flexible “opt-out” provisions for parents concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in of the community have declined. This also resulted in fewer students repeating SOL tests.

Taking end-of-course exams also declined at the high school level in 2020-21 due to the flexibility the Board of Education introduced in terms of awarding verified credits for completion, Pyle said.

Parents, students and community leaders were at odds Compliance with the mandatory mask regulations in the same year.

Go forward

Parents will soon have access to individualized progress reports for students in grades 1-8. Virginia will begin select school divisions in the fall before expanding into the Commonwealth.

“We addressed a performance gap before the pandemic, and now we have even more to gain,” Balow said Aug. 18.

The superintendent said school departments are using federal pandemic relief funds to address the learning loss with one-on-one tuition, extended school years, and before- and after-school programs.

“More intensive and frequent intervention will undoubtedly make a difference for students who are reading and staying under grade,” Balow said.

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. If you have any questions, contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong: [email protected] Keep following Virginia Mercury Facebook and Twitter.


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