Alexandria SOL pass rates lag behind state scores

Alexandria SOL pass rates lag behind state scores
Alexandria's marks were lower than those prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Data/Virginia Department of Education and Chart/Jessica Kim)

By Olivia Anderson |

Alexandria City Public Schools’ 2021-22 Standards of Learning scores improved from last year in three of four categories, though state officials said the reading improvement was primarily due to lowered benchmarks. Even with the lowered standards, the city’s marks were lower than those prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The performance of ACPS also lagged behind that of Virginia as a whole in every category by at least 11 percentage points, with Alexandria students achieving a lower than 50% proficiency in both math and science. The SOL scores were released by the Virginia Department of Education last week.

For the 2021-2022 school year, ACPS had a pass rate of 60.94% in reading; 62.39% pass rate in writing; 53.90% pass rate in history and social science; 48.64% pass rate in mathematics; and 48.68% pass rate in science.

Comparatively, the 2021- 2022 VDOE statewide results revealed a pass rate of 73.12% in reading; 64.74% pass rate in writing; 65.75% pass rate in history and social science; 66.37% pass rate in mathematics; and 65.01% pass rate in science. Alexandria’s performance in math was 17.73 percentage points lower than the statewide totals, while the science scores were 16.33 percentage points lower than Virginia as a whole.

According to Charles Pyle, VDOE director of communications, the results are somewhat misleading because the state introduced new reading tests in 2021 that require lower proficiency benchmarks, meaning they were easier tests than previous school years.

VDOE’s statewide assessment change was the result of a process that included multiple committees of teachers and experts reviewing the prior tests and making recommendations on what should be the cut score for proficiency and advanced proficiency. Those recommendations were presented to the Board of Education in November 2020, and even though the state’s superintendent of public instruction recommended cut scores slightly above those recommended by the teacher committee, the board went with the teacher committee’s recommendation.

The most recent reading results understate the amount of learning loss, he said.

“We had a change in the assessment. When the students took the reading tests before the pandemic, it was a more rigorous test,” Pyle said. “And so, during 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, the students were taking reading tests with a lower passing benchmark and so the effect is to understate the amount of learning loss compared with what we likely would have seen had students taken reading tests with the same level of rigor as the tests that they took before the pandemic.”

Locally, in the 2020-2021 school year, ACPS had a pass rate of 57.42% in reading; 81.86% in writing; 45.18% in history and social science; 39.71% in mathematics; and 43.53% in science.

The statewide 2020-2021 results were a mixed bag. Virginia had a pass rate of 69.34% in reading; 69% in writing; 54.54% in history and social science; 54.18% in mathematics and 59.45% in science.

Although ACPS’ reading pass rate is up 4% from 2021 – 57.42% to 60.94% – and its mathematics pass rate is up 9% from 2021 – 39.71% to 48.64% – the results are skewed due to the reduction in student participation during the COVID-19 pandemic. While in a typical year participation is in the upper 90s, Pyle said, during the 2020-2021 school year, many assessments had lower than 75% participation.

Alexandria students achieved a lower than 50% proficiency in both math and science. (Data/Virginia Department of Education and Chart/Jessica Kim)

According to ACPS data, writing and history/social science contained less than 30% of the typical student population assessed during the 2020- 2021 school year.

The pandemic had an impact on many subject areas, particularly science, which consists of cumulative tests. Fifth and eighth grade SOL tests assess content taught over several years, for example, which greatly affected the students who missed instruction when then Gov. Ralph Northam (D) closed schools in 2020 due to the pandemic. Because classes were virtual, students weren’t able to utilize school laboratories for projects, which Pyle said significantly affected the cumulative science tests.

“When you look at the 2020-2021 results you have to keep in mind that there’s a lot of context there in terms of the level of participation in the tests, and that can make a big difference,” Pyle said.

That’s why a more accurate picture is to compare the 2021- 2022 SOL scores with the 2018- 2019 scores, as the latter took place before the pandemic.

In 2018-2019, ACPS had a pass rate of 67.69% in reading; 70.25% pass rate in writing; 72.27% pass rate in history and social science; 70.32% pass rate in mathematics; and 67.18% in science.

Statewide, in 2018-2019, Virginia had a pass rate of 77.55% in reading; 75.74% in writing; 79.99% in history and social science; 82.05% in mathematics and 80.91% in science.

ACPS therefore is down 7% from 2018-2019 in its reading pass rate, from 67.69% to 60.94%. The district is down 21% from 2018-2019 in its mathematics pass rate, from 70.32% to 48.64%.

Jillian Balow, Virginia’s current superintendent of public instruction, said one major takeaway from this year’s results is that in-person instruction is important in improving learning overall.

“The bottom line is that in-person instruction matters. 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,” she said in a statement.

School Board member Ashley Simpson Baird said this year’s scores show that ACPS is rebounding – particularly when it comes to Hispanic students, English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, who have demonstrated some of the largest gains – but not yet fully back to pre-pandemic levels.

“This is hopeful but we still have work to do,” Baird said in a statement. “What we need most is time. The latest research indicates that it will take several years to get to full recovery. To get there we need to continue to strengthen Tier 1 instruction and ensure that our Multitiered Systems of Support are getting students the interventions they need to perform on grade level.”

Clinton Page, ACPS’ chief of accountability and research, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that a full recovery from the pandemic’s effects is still on the horizon.

“With the increases seen in reading, math and science, pass rates have yet to equal those seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to reinforce the need to focus on connection, support and recovery for ACPS students, staff and families,” Page said.