More than two decades ago, Virginia politicians were clamoring for quantifiable ways to measure the success — or failure — of public schools. The concern among many members of the General Assembly was that there were deep problems in the state’s public school divisions, but they had no way to accurately gauge the extent of the problem.

Were students being taught their ABCs? Were students hitting markers for proficiency in mathematics or reading or social studies or science along the course of their 12 years in public schools that would render them “educated” by the time they graduated? No one, legislators argued, had any solid data to prove whether taxpayers were getting their money’s worth out of the dollars invested in public education.

Out of this came the Virginia Standards of Learning testing regime.

First administered in 1998 in the third, fifth, eighth and high school grades, the tests focused on reading, writing, math, history and science. The administration of Republican George Allen, governor from 1994 to 1998, led the development of the testing standards.

In the intervening years, the tests have undergone many changes, from levels of difficulty to the schedule of what tests are administered in what grades. Inevitably, too, politics has crept into the picture. While initially intended only to measure students’ progress at hitting various educational markers through the course of their years in school, politicians have tried, unsuccessfully, to use the test results to give individual schools grades on an A-F scale and even, in some divisions, to drill down to the individual classroom level.

Early August is a nerve-wracking time for leaders of the state’s 133 public school divisions; that’s when the Virginia Department of Education releases results of the just-ended school year’s round of testing. It’s not a relaxing time to be a school superintendent.

When the state released results from the 2018-19 school year last week, the lead summary was that the share of students who passed tests in all five subject areas dropped in comparison with 2017-18 rates. Still, across the state, the data shows that more than 3 in 4 students passed all five tests, as required by law.

An examination of the pass rates for the individual subject area tests reveals that the biggest drop year-over-year was in history, with students statewide scoring 4 percentage points worse than the year before. The pass rate for reading was virtually identical: 78 percent passing in 2018-19 as opposed to 79 percent in 2017-18. Writing results were similar, with 76 percent passing in 2018-19, down from 78 percent a year earlier. The science pass rate was unchanged at 81 percent. Pass rates for the new math test, first approved by the state Board of Education in 2016, rose 5 percentage points from 77 percent in 2017-18 to 82 percent.

So, a mixed bag, you could say, with some obvious areas for improvement at both the state and local levels.

Except for two glaring problems, problems that have vexed educators for years: (1) a large achievement gap between Asian and non-Hispanic white students vs. African American and Hispanic students and (2) troubling disparities between urban and non-urban school divisions.

Take the third-grade reading test, for example. Eighty percent of white students in the state passed the exam, compared with only 55 percent of Hispanic children. Expanded to all grade levels, 89 percent of Asian students and 85 percent of white students passed the reading tests, while the pass rates for Hispanic and African American students were 66 percent and 65 percent, respectively.

The data also starkly show the challenges urban school divisions face.

In Danville Public Schools, students improved in math from a 49 pass rate in 2017-18 to 51 in 2018-19. But the other subject areas saw substantial declines: reading, 56 down to 52; writing, 61 down to 51; history and social sciences, 64 down to 49; and science, 60 down to 49. By contrast, pass rates for Pittsylvania County essentially remained steady, year to year.

While it is debatable whether fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests accurately measure academic proficiency or just gauge test-taking ability, the areas of concern they illuminate are real. Economically disadvantaged families — those in need of wrap-around social services, without transportation and with unstable home lives — flock to cities where the services are. And children from those homes pose educational challenges. Costly educational challenges. Educators and elected officials must confront those challenges head-on or we all suffer.

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