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Gaslighting the Public: Misinterpreting Student Performance and NAEP Scores (3 of 3)

Although Governor Youngkin was lambasted 18 months ago for his inaccurate conclusions about the current state of Virginia Public Education, he continues to make the same erroneous claims in a politically expedient attempt to convince Virginians that our public schools are failing. In 2022, he claimed that Virginia’s students were performing poorly on national assessments, they were falling behind their peers in other states, and this was due to the previous administration’s decisions to “...lower standards and fail[ure] to prioritize the needs of students.” Those conclusions were, and continue to be, patently false, as is revealed below.

In May 2022, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released a report on student achievement. It was in that document where they made the erroneous claims using National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores and Standards of Learning scores. The fact that there were serious errors in the VDOE analysis was published shortly thereafter, but even now the administration continues to make the same fallacious claims in an apparent attempt to gaslight the public for political purposes.

"... the NAEP test is very different from Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, and experts warn against comparing their results."

The truth about Virginia’s NAEP scores

Even after being warned in 2022 that the NAEP assessment categories can not be directly compared with the categories on the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, the administration continues to do that. Although the tests use the same terms (basic, proficient, or advanced), these terms refer to different levels of student achievement on the two tests. Since the standards are not equivalent, the percentage of students deemed “proficient” cannot be expected to be the same for student groups taking the NAEP and SOL tests.

If the administration wanted to compare achievement levels between the NAEP and SOL tests, they should have used the well developed and documented method of mapping the NAEP and state achievement tests. The Youngkin administration has not done that. Instead, they use invalid direct comparisons of “proficiency” scores to make the erroneous claim that Virginia’s public schools are failing. It seems to be a desperate attempt to gaslight the electorate that he is the “education governor” before the state midterms.

If the Youngkin administration had properly compared NAEP and SOL proficiency levels by mapping results for comparison, very different conclusions should have been made. The data would have shown that students in Virginia performed as well or better than students nationwide. Since the Administration began making their false claims, numerous educators and politicians have objected to those claims, but that has not stopped Governor Youngkin, his Secretary of Education and his Superintendent of Public Instruction (formerly Jill Balow and now Lisa Coons) from repeating falsehoods.

Confusion about results of state assessments is amplified because NAEP uses the same names for their benchmarks as do states for their student assessment scores. The U. S. Department of Education can eliminate this confusion by renaming the NAEP benchmarks as low, intermediate, high, and advanced.

While it is commendable that Governor Youngkin wants to raise Virginia student achievement, he is incorrect in saying that Virginia’s standards are the “lowest in the nation.” The truth is that when it comes to the nation’s report card (NAEP), Virginia students “ranked near the top in fourth grade math and reading and eighth grade math,” and average in eighth grade reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in a PolitiFact analysis.

Also, it is important to remember that in contrast to Governor Youngkin’s claims, raising standards does not improve student achievement. The governor has been informed that there are proven effective ways to improve achievement that do not involve manipulating academic standards or privatizing public education. A proven method is to adequately fund public schools. Currently, Virginia is 44th in the nation in per student state funding, so it looks like Youngkin has his work cut out for him.

Bottom line

Either Governor Youngkin and his VDOE are not up to the task of evaluating student achievement, or they are intentionally gaslighting the public for political advantage.

4 Public Education suggests both may be true.


This is part three 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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