Pandemic-related disruptions affected testing, outcomes during last school year
As expected, the results of Virginia’s 2020-21 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests reflect the extraordinary circumstances faced by students and schools last year. Overall, 64% of Greene County students passed their English/Reading SOLs (given in grades 3-8), while 40% passed the math exams (grades 3-8 plus geometry and algebra 1 and 2) and 56% passed in science (grades 5 and 8 as well as biology, chemistry and earth science). By comparison, pass rates in 2019 were 70% for English, 77% in math and 76% in science.
Statewide, 69% of Virginia students passed their reading SOLs, 54% passed in math and 59% in science last year. SOLs were not given in spring 2020 due to the unanticipated early closure of schools that March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first began to affect Virginia residents in full force.
“There were so many different variables at play for this past testing session that trying to make any comparisons to years past—like we typically would—just really doesn’t make sense,” said GCPS Assistant Superintendent Dr. Bryan Huber. “In the 2019-20 school year, SOLs were canceled, so students didn’t take them at all (due to school closures). And then their experience in school was much different last year, so for some students they really hadn’t tested in two years. For example, our fourth-grade students took an SOL for the very first time in their lives during a pandemic.”
According to a recent press release from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), 2021 SOL test results followed trends on state tests nationwide. These pass rates reflect disruptions to instruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, decreased participation in state assessment programs, pandemic-related declines in enrollment, fewer retakes and more flexible “opt-out” provisions for parents concerned about community spread of the virus.
“What matters now is where we go from here, and we will use the data from the SOLs to identify the unique needs of every learner as our schools resume in-person instruction for all students,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane.
Despite the unusual circumstances of the past school year—with roughly 40% of Greene County students attending school virtually all year and middle and high school students attending in person only two days per week—the state mandated that schools would offer the exams as usual last year. Virtual students were required to come in to the buildings in person to take the tests in order to maintain security protocols.
“Many of them had not been in a school building for over a year, and that’s a challenge,” Huber said. “We also had the factor of students not taking the SOL, which typically is very few and far between. This year, our virtual students were given the option of whether they wanted to take it, so we had much less participating than in years past.”
In a typical school year, participation in these federally-mandated tests is usually around 99%, according to VDOE. In 2021, 75.5% of Virginia students in affected grades took the reading assessment; 78.7% took the math exams; and 80% took the science tests.
“Looking at the participation rates, there was at least a five to 10% drop in the number of students actually sitting for the SOL as compared to years past,” said Huber.
The state waived all school accreditation requirements for 2021-22, releasing some of the pressure on schools to perform well during an unusual year. The Board of Education also granted flexibility in guidelines for the awarding of verified credits for graduation, meaning that some requirements were lowered in the past year.
One big factor in the drop in pass rates for 2021, according to Huber, is that students were not offered the ability to retake the exams this year. In a normal year, students who fail their first attempt by a small margin are permitted to retake the test. According to VDOE, retakes typically account for an up to 5% increase in school pass rates compared to first attempts.
“Typically if students score in a certain range, they are permitted to retake the SOL to see if they can pass—we did not do that (this year),” Huber said. “Students that will retake typically score in the 375-400 range and then they retake, and about 50% of our students are successful on retakes.”
Due to the complex nature of the past school year, Huber says teachers and administrators did not spend a lot of time worrying about passing standardized tests.
“Across the board, we did not spend any time with test prep,” he said. “Typically, in the spring months, we would periodically have students do practice tests or revisit previously-learned skills and those sorts of things; we didn’t do that. We knew that these scores would have no impact on accreditation, so we opted to spend time on instruction and social-emotional learning.”
While VDOE has reported the results of the 2020-21 SOL tests, accreditation ratings for the past school year will not be calculated. All schools will have accreditation waived for 2021-22, as they did during the 2020-21 school year.
“Across the board, the state has waived accreditation, which is directly tied to these assessments,” Huber said. “I think the good thing that allowed school divisions to do is shift the narrative from the test to what does this child and family need to be OK throughout this pandemic, and a lot of that was around the social and emotional supports and mental health supports that were in place last year that we spent time on, instead of spending time on things such as test preparation.”
Overall, 64% of Greene County students passed the English SOLs in 2021—compared to 70% in 2019. That breaks down to 52% passing in third grade; 59% in fourth grade; 61% in fifth grade; 67% in sixth grade; 70% in seventh grade; 59% in eighth grade; and 78% in end-of-course exams.
In the math field, only 40% of students passed their 2021 SOL tests in Greene, compared to 77% in 2019. This breaks down to 52% in third grade; 38% in fourth grade; 46% in fifth grade; 28% in sixth grade; 37% in seventh grade; 5% in eighth grade; 60% in geometry; 38% in Algebra 1; and 76% in Algebra 2.
“It was predicted early on in the school year—not just locally but at the state level—that reading scores would be much less impacted as compared to math scores, because those math scores are definitely new skills that are being learned as opposed to the skill of reading, which you can retain much longer and apply to new tests,” Huber said.
In science, 56% of Greene County students passed in 2021 compared to 76% in 2019. The breakdown was 45% passing for fifth grade science; 52% for eighth grade; 68% for biology; and 60% for earth science. No exams were given for chemistry in 2021.
“I think that can be attributed to some of those same factors I mentioned with no test prep,” Huber said. “Because we had less time with students in the buildings, our focus was definitely leaning towards literacy and math more than some of the other content areas, so I think that could explain the difference.”
It is important to note that some subjects stopped giving SOL exams in 2019. Statistics on pass rates for writing, fifth- and eighth-grade history, VA and U.S. history, geography and civics are available up through 2019 but are not included in this comparison as they have not been given since the pandemic.
“They’re doing performance assessments, which are locally developed and then scored with a rubric,” Huber explained. “You can’t compare performance on the assessments with, let’s say, a multiple-choice test.”
The 2014 Virginia General Assembly eliminated SOL assessments in select subjects, requiring local school divisions to continue to teach the content but to measure student achievement with local alternative assessments. According to VDOE, school divisions must annually certify that they have provided instruction and administered an alternative assessment consistent with Board of Education guidelines in grades and subjects that no longer have a corresponding SOL test.
One other factor to carefully consider when analyzing testing data is the breakdown of pass rates according to demographic data.
“I think it’s very widely known that the pandemic has most disproportionately affected our subgroups of students—which would include our English learners, our students with disabilities—for a variety of reasons, and we saw that progressing throughout the year,” Huber said. “Obviously, exposure to language is important for English learners to continue to progress, and if you’re virtual or only coming to school two days a week, you’re going to unfortunately suffer the effects of that.”
To assist the English Learners (also referred to as Limited English Proficient), new teachers have been added to GCPS staff to reduce the caseload of students per teacher.
“This allows for more direct time with that language acquisition support,” Huber said. “We also utilize some of our other positions to focus on improving the status of our long-term English Learners to try to reduce the number of students that are in that category.”
New positions, including student success coaches and school psychologists, have also been added this year in an attempt to assist those students most at risk of falling behind due to the challenges of the past year.
“While the impact of the pandemic is clear, the SOL data from last year also highlights inequities between student groups,” Lane said. “VDOE remains resolute in its commitment to supporting educators to close these achievement gaps and help all students succeed in the classroom. Virginia is fortunate to have world-class teachers and school leaders that continue to demonstrate their ability to successfully navigate these ongoing challenges and help every student thrive.”
The state certainly anticipated these learning losses, and much is being planned to help students bridge the gap as they return to classrooms this fall.
“Virginia’s 2020-2021 SOL test scores tell us what we already knew—students need to be in the classroom without disruption to learn effectively,” Lane said. “The connections, structures and supports our school communities provide are irreplaceable, and many students did not have access to in-person instruction for the full academic year. We must now focus on unfinished learning and acceleration to mitigate the impact the pandemic has had on student results.”
Recovery efforts are supported by an infusion of both state and federal funding for the commonwealth’s public schools. In May, Governor Ralph Northam announced $62.7 million in Virginia LEARNS Education Recovery grants to help school divisions expand and implement targeted initiatives to address the impact of the pandemic on student learning. These grants are given to fund increased in-person instruction and small-group learning; targeted remediation and enrichment; strategic virtual learning, technology and staff training; social-emotional, behavioral and mental health supports for both students and staff; alternate learning opportunities; student progress monitoring and assessment; and planning and implementing year-round or extended-year calendars.
Additionally, $147 million from the federal American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund are required to be used by the commonwealth to support instructional recovery efforts. The funding includes $105 million to address unfinished learning, $21 million for evidence-based afterschool programs and $21 million for evidence-based summer learning.
While SOL tests are one tool to provide teachers and administrators information on where students are excelling or falling behind after a tumultuous year and a half of pandemic learning, Greene County schools have also begun collecting data on the needs of students—including their social and emotional needs and mental health concerns. According to Huber, the district is already in the process of breaking down pre-assessment data and comparing it with SOL results in order to formulate specific recovery plans for each child.
“I think it’s important for people to know that this is not a problem that’s going to magically fixed in a year,” he said. “This is something that we really have to look at what is our strategy to help students make growth over the long term, to do the best they can to catch up while also making sure that we’re taking care of their social and emotional needs and their mental health. Just because there may be some gaps or some students who have fallen behind, we don’t want to lose sight of the whole child.”
It is clear that SOL test results, while indicative of some of the challenges facing Greene County students and teachers, are only a smaller piece of a much larger puzzle.