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Gaslighting the Public: Manufactured Crisis over SOL Scores (2 of 3)

For two years in a row, Governor Youngkin has blamed slow growth and recovery of SOL test scores on his predecessors and pandemic school closures. Although scores showed some recovery in 2022 during Youngkin’s first year in office, 2023 SOL scores remained stagnant during his second year in office. This begs the question: Is Youngkin intentionally attempting to gaslight Virginians and spread disinformation, or does his administration fundamentally not understand how SOLs are scored? Perhaps more importantly, do leaders at the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) know the difference between their misguided plan and evidenced-based methods to improve student performance?

A week ago, the Youngkin administration released the SOL results, three weeks late, claiming corrections were necessary; however, VDOE also ascribed blame for this year’s stagnant scores on previous gubernatorial administrations (McAuliffe and Northam). Specifically, VDOE claimed those administrations dishonestly lowered expectations for students, standards for schools, and SOL proficiency cutoff point so that students appeared to do better than they actually did, thereby setting up Younkgin’s administration for low SOL scores.

Ironically, the Youngkin Administration made similar claims last spring and they were soundly debunked; however, Governor Youngkin, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons have resurrected these false claims in an apparent attempt to gaslight the public for political advantage. Rather than take responsibility for stagnant SOLs , they have been presenting misinformation and blaming previous administrations in town halls and press conferences.

Youngkin’s VDOE claims that the solutions to improve Virginia SOL scores are to raise expectations and SOL proficiency cutoff points, in addition to spending millions of dollars for intensive tutoring, which may be hard to implement considering the current teacher shortage.

Educators and education experts question these improvement methods as both ineffective and misguided. To understand why Youngkin’s claims are unfounded, one must understand:

1) How proficiency levels are determined for SOL tests

State education agencies rate proficiency levels for tested students based on scores that separate each proficiency level, which are called “cut scores.” There is a well established method of determining cut scores that has been in place since 1998, when SOL testing started in Virginia prior to the passage of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Education Act.

Across the country, proficiency level cutoff points for standardized tests are determined using one of two methods, the Angoff method or the Bookmark method, both of which use education experts to identify appropriate proficiency level boundaries. Virginia uses the Angoff method, which identifies appropriate cut scores by conducting detailed assessments of the content of the test to determine the rigor of the new tests before the tests are given. On the other hand, the bookmark method identifies cut scores after the test is given.

In Virginia, proposed proficiency level cutoff points are evaluated by three different parties, Standard Setting and Articulation committees and the Superintendent of Public Education, who provide recommendations for cut scores to the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE). The VBOE considers recommendations from all three groups before voting on the final cut scores for each test.

This transparent process of identifying appropriate cut scores provides detailed documentation on how the final cut scores are determined. Additionally, it shows that pass proficient cut scores are almost always at or above the recommended scores. Because cut scores are based on the rigor of each new SOL test, and the tests change over time, changes in cut scores for Virginia are expected.

2) Whether “raising standards” improves student performance

Secretary Guidera claimed, without providing evidence, that higher cut scores historically have led to higher student achievement. However, available data show that increasing state standards does not improve learning or student achievement, and students likely will not deliver better test scores when standards are raised. In fact, researchers at Education Next analyzed education testing and “found no correlation between a rise in state standards and a rise in student achievement – despite this being the main objective of raising the bar of test proficiency.”

Nevertheless, in October 2022 Governor Youngkin asked the VBOE to “[w]ork to establish new accountability and accreditation systems, that will include contemplations by the Board about learning proficiency and high expectations for students… Raising our cut scores to what we believe is the content and skill mastery needed to be on track for readiness for college and career is foundational'.

After meeting on the topic for nine hours, the Board did not act on the request other than by recommending that Virginia should add experts from higher education to one of the committees, and that they should consider impact data in determining future cut scores. To date, the VBOE has not changed Virginia’s cut scores since Governor Youngkin took office, but recently the VDOE announced that the administration is working on a new system of accountability.

Much fuss has been made over cut score values but some education experts criticize the use of cut scores to begin with. In fact, the President of the American Federation of Teachers said, “States should ditch the use of cut scores, with their simplistic picture of performance. Yet there’s political appeal in bashing schools based on the higher failure rates created by raising cut scores, which isn’t the same thing as declining student performance.“

How should Virginia increase academic proficiency?

In his January 17, 2022 address to the General assembly, Governor Youngkin promised to improve student performance in Virginia’s public schools, while ignoring the fact that Virginia students perform better than most students in the United States. Across the county 65% of students did not meet the national proficiency standards in 2019, compared to 60% in Virginia. Also, Virginia public schools are rated fourth out of all the states, based on reviews by both Forbes and the World Population Review.

As mentioned previously, there are no studies that show that raising expectations or standards improves student performance. However, there is a strong positive relationship between the funding levels of schools and student learning and between academic achievement and student socioeconomic level, so it follows that academic achievement can be improved by increasing resources to underfunded schools.

Increased funding is especially important for schools in low income communities. In Virginia, the number of economically disadvantaged students has increased since 2008. Sadly, the 2023 Joint Legislative And Review Committee report ranked Virginia 40th in the nation for per student state funding, well below the national average, and 24th in the nation for K-12 teacher pay. The Commonwealth Institute noted that “In Virginia, economically disadvantaged students underperform on standardized tests – scoring 24 to 31 percent lower on average – are less likely to graduate on time, and more likely to drop out.”

It is clear that the best way to raise student proficiency scores in Virginia is to increase state funding to public schools, especially in low income communities, as well as increase teacher salaries to attract and retain good teachers. Imagine how well Virginia students would do if they and their teachers were adequately funded.

Imagine how well Virginia students would do if they and their teachers were adequately funded.

This is part two of a three-part series on Gaslighting the Public in Virginia by Governor Youngkin:

Part 1 covers the Manufactured SAT Crisis


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