IW school attendance improving, but test scores stagnate

Published 5:29 pm Friday, September 15, 2023

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Isle of Wight County Schools saw improved attendance last school year over the prior one, but the division still hasn’t returned to its pre-pandemic pass rates on the state’s Standards of Learning, or SOL, exams.

The Virginia Department of Education released the results of the 2022-23 statewide standardized tests on Sept. 7.

Divisionwide in Isle of Wight, 78% of students passed the reading test, reflecting no change from the 2021-22 school year. During the 2018-19 school year, the last before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Isle of Wight saw an 80% pass rate.

In writing, science and history, Isle of Wight’s 2022-23 scores were slightly lower than the prior school year.

Isle of Wight saw a 70% pass rate on the writing test, down three percentage points from 2021-22 and eight from the 2018-19 school year.

Isle of Wight saw a 67% pass rate on the science test, down four points from 2021-22. The score reflects the sharpest departure from the 2018-19 school year, which had seen an 83% pass rate.

Isle of Wight’s divisionwide history test saw a 71% pass rate, down one point from 2021-22. In 2018-19, the pass rate was 80%.

All of Isle of Wight’s 2022-23 SOL pass rates were at or above the state average. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons, in a Sept. 7 news release announcing Virginia’s results, said “more than half” of third- through eighth-graders statewide “either failed or are at risk of failing their reading SOL exam,” and “nearly two-thirds” had failed or were at risk of failing the math exam.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in a news release announcing a remediation plan titled “All In VA,” blamed public schools’ continued underperformance compared to their pre-pandemic scores on the monthslong closure of Virginia’s schools during the early days of COVID-19.

Some individual schools, however, have bucked the trend. Among them are Windsor High School, which exceeded its 2018-19 pass rate on the 2022-23 reading and math exams.


How are tests scored?

In 2020, new reading tests measuring the 2017-adopted changes to English content standards were to be administered, though the state canceled its 2019-20 SOLs due to the pandemic.

That same year, the Virginia Board of Education adopted new “cut scores” for the reading exam based on the changes in test content. The term refers to the number of test questions students at each grade level must answer correctly to receive a passing score on the exam. 

According to a record of the Board of Education’s May 7, 2020, meeting, then-State Superintendent James Lane recommended the passing threshold for third, fourth and fifth grade be lowered from 62.5% on the old test to between 55-60% depending on grade level. The recommended change for sixth, seventh and eighth-grade was to drop the minimum passing score from 62.5% on the old test to 57.7% on the new one.

Coons contends the lowered thresholds “enabled students to pass that would not have otherwise received a passing score” had they taken the 2018-19 school year’s SOL tests. Roughly 32% of third- through eighth-graders statewide who passed the 2022-23 reading exam fell into this “low proficient” bracket, Coons said.

Lane, now CEO of the Arlington-based teacher advocacy organization PDK International, did not immediately respond to The Smithfield Times’ request for comments on Coons’ assertion.

Isle of Wight’s test results, published on the VDOE’s school quality.virginia.gov website, do not include a breakdown of the divisionwide number or percentage of students deemed “low proficient.” 

Of the 78% who passed the reading test, 65% are listed as “proficient” and 13% are listed as “advanced.”

The “advanced” label, as of the 2020 changes in cut scores, referred to third- and fourth-graders who answer at least 87.5% of reading test questions correctly and fifth-graders who answer 90% correctly. Sixth- through eighth-graders who correctly answer 86.6%, and high school students who answer 80.8% of questions correctly on end-of-course English exams are also deemed advanced.


Racial disparity persists

Eighty-six percent of the county’s white students passed the reading exam in 2018-19, compared to a 67% pass rate among Black students. For 2022-23, the pass rate among white students had fallen to 83% while the rate among Black students had fallen to 65%.

The scores, however, reflect a 6-point closing of the racial gap during the 2021-22 school year, which had seen an 84% pass rate among white students and a 60% pass rate among Black students.

In math, the racial disparity between pre-pandemic and 2022-23 scores is even more pronounced.

The number of white students who passed the math exam fell five percentage points, from 88% in 2018-19 to 83% this past school year. For Black students, the pre-pandemic 70% pass rate had fallen 18 points to 62% as of 2022-23.


Chronic absenteeism improving

Chronic absenteeism, defined as a student who is absent for 10% or more during a school year, is one of nine indicators Virginia uses when awarding or denying state accreditation to schools.

All nine of the county’s public schools remain accredited despite 14.3% of Isle of Wight’s students divisionwide being deemed chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year.

The figure is less than half the 29.7% of students deemed chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year. During the 2018-19 school year, 10.2% of Isle of Wight’s students were chronically absent.

All nine schools have improved attendance, particularly Georgie D. Tyler Middle School, which saw 16.2% of its student body chronically absent in 2022-23, down from a staggering 44.9% in 2021-22.