SPS testing results show improvement

Published 5:52 pm Friday, August 26, 2022

Board member concerned numbers are still lower than pre-pandemic years

By Greg Goldfarb

Contributing Writer

While some Virginia public school districts are facing lower-than-desired marks from this summer’s SOL testing, Suffolk’s report card shows improvement over the previous year.

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Pass rate results released last week by the Virginia Department of Education show one-year, across-the-state scholastic gains in many academic subjects, but overall student achievement during the last school year is down compared to pre-pandemic levels, with past school closures and distance learning cited as reasons for declining scores.

The latest scores are the first reflecting a full year of in-person, in the classroom, instruction since schools were shuttered in March 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“The bottom line is that in-person instruction matters,” said Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, when results were announced. “When we compare the 2021-2022 data with achievement in 2020-2021, when the majority of our students were learning remotely or on hybrid schedules, we can see the difference our teachers made once they were reunited with their students in their classrooms.”

Suffolk Public Schools saw overall student scores rise this past school year in all tested subject areas, compared to a year ago:

  • English-reading, up two points, from 69 to 71;
  • English-writing, up two points, from 61 to 63;
  • History and social science, up 12 points, from 43 to 55;
  • Mathematics, up 21 points, from 41 to 62; and
  • Science, up four points, from 54 to 58.

Fresh data also shows academic achievement gains in Suffolk, by demographic group, for Asians, African Americans, economically disadvantaged, English learners, males, females and Whites. Only students with disabilities showed a decline.

Overall Suffolk student testing participation for the 2021 to 2022 school year showed that in English-reading, 7,150 students out of 7,280 were tested; in math, 7,021 out of 7146; and in science, 2,409 out of 2,488. In all three areas, the district had a 98% participation rate.

From 2020 to 2021, data shows that in English-reading, 5,162 out of 6,371 students were tested, for a participation rate of 81%; in math, 6,061 out of 7,276, for a 83% participation rate; and in science, 2,628 out of 3,091, for a 85% participation rate.

Suffolk Public Schools consists of 21 different learning facilities, including 11 elementary schools, five middle schools, three high schools, with about 1,800 teachers and 14,000 students.

Division administrative officials have said they are pleased with its latest, initial, SOL numbers, which could go up even higher in September after the release of official accreditation results, set to be reviewed by Suffolk School Board members at their Oct. 13 meeting, where some questions about testing methodology and test results may arise.

School Board Member Sherri D. Story, who represents the city’s Chuckatuck Borough, said that according to VDOE’s website, Suffolk’s public schools failed to meet any pre-pandemic achievement scores.

“In fact, many are well under the pre-pandemic levels,” she said Monday. “For instance, the district’s science scores range from 16 percent to 41 percent lower than pre-pandemic scores. As of today, the superintendent has not shared any SOL data with the board.”

Now that many public school districts are getting back to normal following the pandemic, Story expects increased scrutiny of the analysis connected to SOL testing.

“All students had to take the tests this year, unlike last year when it was voluntary,” said Story, who was the only board member to respond to questions for this story. “There is no information that I’ve seen to indicate who actually sat out of the tests last year. Was it more of the academically high achieving students or the lower? If the higher achievers sat out of last year’s SOLs, but were in the pool of test-takers this year, then this could account for the minimal gains this year compared to last.”

Even in the best of times and in the best of schools, standardized test scores can sometimes slide backwards. To try to prevent that from happening, educators and administrators try to remain vigilant in overseeing finances, areas of study and looking toward the future.

It’s unknown if Suffolk public school officials are planning any new initiatives as a post-pandemic generation of learners continues its education.

“The Virginia School Board Association trains all board members that their role is two-fold: to hire the superintendent and to pass the budget,” Story said. “To be involved in anything else is considered to be infringing on the day-to-day operations of the superintendent. I have never seen the Suffolk School Board call special meetings for any crisis, achievement, or otherwise. Therefore, I would not expect this to happen. Our policy for calling special meetings is tightly-controlled by the chair.”

Responding to Story’s assertions that she has not received complete SOL data from division superintendent, Dr. John B. Gordon, III, and she feels confined in her role as a school board member.

“There is only one voice for the school board, and that is the chair, Dr. Judith-Brooks-Buck,” Gordon said. “All school board members receive information at the same time and in the same format. All student achievement scores for Suffolk Public Schools and all school divisions are currently available on the Virginia Department of Education website.”

Back at the state level, SOL test results show a 16-point proficiency gap in mathematics from 2018-19 to 2021-22, with 66% of overall students passing, compared with 82% before the pandemic. Gaps between pre-pandemic math performance and achievement in 2021-2022 were wider among Blacks, Hispanics, economically disadvantaged students, English learners and students with disabilities, according to SOL data.

“The first step in addressing the learning loss our students have experienced is to dive into the SOL data at the state, division and school levels and identify the instructional supports and interventions students require individually and in the aggregate to get back on track to grade-level proficiency,” Balow said. “This is especially critical for our youngest learners who have spent more than a third of their early elementary years without the benefit of in-person instruction.”

Testing results also show a five-point proficiency gap in reading from 2018-19 to 2021-22, despite less rigorous proficiency standards.

Seventy-three percent of students passed SOL and other state assessments in reading, five points below the pre-pandemic pass rate in 2018-2019. Gaps between pre-pandemic performance and reading achievement in 2021-2022 were also wider for Hispanic students and economically disadvantaged students.

Reading results for 2021-2022 understate the extent of learning loss, especially in the early elementary grades, given the adoption of less-rigorous proficiency standards by the Virginia Board of Education when introducing new reading tests during the 2020-2021 school year, according to SOL data.

“Had the board retained the pre-pandemic level of rigor on the reading SOLs, we would be looking at less recovery in reading,” said Balow.

Testing data also shows a higher level of loss learning recovered among students with more in-person learning, including a correlation between in-person instruction during 2020-2021 and higher achievement on the 2021-2022 SOLs.

Data shows that 69% of overall students who experienced in-person instruction for nearly all of 2020-2021, and 62% of students who experienced in-person instruction for most of 2020-2021, passed their 2021-2022 math tests, compared with 39% and 37%, who experienced nearly all or mostly remote instruction, respectively.

Seventy-five percent of students who experienced in-person reading instruction for nearly all of 2020-2021, and 69% of students who experienced in-person instruction for most of 2020-2021, passed in 2021-2022, compared with 39% and 37% who experienced nearly all or mostly remote instruction, respectively.

Except for writing, students overall and students in all demographic groups progressed in 2021-2022, compared with performances during 2020-2021.

“The growth and progress of students last year accounts for the rebound in achievement in most content areas,” said Balow. “Teachers are working so hard to help students catch up and meet academic needs. Schools have the responsibility to target their state and federal pandemic relief funds on proven strategies to address learning loss, such as high-dosage tutoring, before and after-school programs and extended learning opportunities.”

In an effort to reverse learning loss, VDOE this fall plans to begin its own individualized progress reports for students in grades first through eighth to allow parents to see where their children are succeeding and where they have fallen behind. The department will mark the progress reports in selected school divisions before making them available for students and parents statewide.

Additional data on the performance of students on the 2021-2022 assessments, including grade-level and course-specific rates for schools, school divisions and the Commonwealth, is available on the VDOE website and on the department’s School Quality Profile reports.

VDOE’s upcoming accreditation ratings feature multiple indicators of school quality and student achievement, such as growth in reading and mathematics, and high school graduation rates. The department waived annual school accreditation ratings for the last two school years.

Local school board elections, academic curriculums, library content and parental involvement have sometimes become politicized in some school divisions, as concerned citizens, students, parents, teachers, school board members and administrators become embroiled over what is being taught in public schools. Prioritizing and identifying future student needs is becoming increasingly contentious and hotly debated.

“None of us thought restricting in-person instruction during the pandemic would be beneficial to student outcomes,” said Virginia Education Association president, Dr. James J. Fedderman. “This was not and is not a political issue. It’s always been about saving lives. Going to virtual instruction was a painful concession, but the numbers bear it out: it’s clear from numerous public health studies that schools that chose full in-person instruction during periods of high COVID-19 rates contributed to significant community spread and mortality.

“Any discussion of test scores or other student outcomes should be tempered with the somber reality of our need for safety during a global pandemic and the trade-off for human life,” Fedderman said. “Presenting the choice to provide virtual instruction without the context misrepresents the intent of educators and school leaders, which was always to get students back in the classroom as soon as possible.”