THE BAD NEWS is that reading scores in the National Assessment of Education Progress test—better known as the Nation’s Report Card—for Virginia’s fourth- and eighth-graders are the lowest they’ve been in at least 15 years.
What might be even scarier is that Virginia students continue to score higher than the vast majority of their counterparts across the country. These observations are based on state and national averages at NAEP’s basic level, the lowest of its three levels of achievement. The other levels are proficient and advanced.
Part of the problem, both in Virginia and across the nation, is the larger concentration of English learners who are taking the reading test and, as would be expected, tend to bring scores down. That tendency is exacerbated by an increasing number of students from low-income families.
Special intervention or English immersion classes could be in order to help these students when they’re very young, and more adaptable to language and reading skills.
The ability to read at a high comprehension level is fundamental to learning, whatever the subject matter. Children whose reading skills aren’t nurtured from a very early age, whether at home or in preschool, are destined to fall behind their peers and perhaps play a lifetime of catch-up. These kids are very often cheated out of the opportunity to succeed.
There is plenty to unpack here, but it’s hardly coincidental that just last month, the Virginia Department of Education issued a draft of its revised Standards of Quality resolution, a comprehensive, 35-page document that sets the state’s objectives for K–12 education.
The SOQs aim to equalize education quality across the state, improve good teacher recruitment and retention, reduce class size and boost student performance on both state and national standardized tests. All objectives are also designed to improve student graduation and school accreditation rates.
In light of that, members of the General Assembly on both sides of the aisle are promising to increase spending to meet the state’s education objectives—including an additional $36 million for reading specialists. State law requires funding adequate to meet the Standards of Quality, but many argue that the state perennially falls short of that goal.
Another challenge is that teacher salaries in Virginia, averaging about $54,400 annually, are running $8,000 below the national average and rank 33rd among the states, according to the National Education Association—even though Virginia is one of the nation’s top 10 wealthiest states based on median household income.
Maryland, by comparison, pays it’s teachers $18,000 per year more than Virginia, ranking it ninth among the states.
These issues will be a key challenge for the soon-to-be Democrat-controlled state government as the party tests the limits of spending and revenue-raising. State law requires that Virginia lawmakers produce a balanced budget.
Some question the wisdom of spending more money to improve the public schools, even though per-student funding in Virginia remains at least 8 percent below what it was in the 2008-09 school year. After that, the Great Recession precipitated significant year-over-year cuts in K–12 school funding.
Since the mid-2000s, Virginia education officials have actually seen slight but steady overall improvement in NAEP reading test scores, which are administered every two years. But then, from 2017 to 2019, reading scores plunged in Virginia and many other states.
Virginia was among 17 states that saw significant declines for fourth-graders, and it was among 34 states whose scores dropped for eighth-graders.
More troubling is Virginia students’ poor performance at the proficient level, which indicates that their ability and knowledge exceeds the adequate grade-level performance of the basic achievement. Test results indicate that only 38 percent of Virginia fourth-graders—less than two in five—are performing at the proficient level or above.
Even worse, only 33 percent of eighth-graders had reading scores at proficient levels or above.
If you’re looking for less depressing news, it can be found in Virginia’s mathematics Report Card scores. In math, Virginia’s fourth-graders were outperformed by those in just one other state, while its eighth-graders were outperformed by students in only three other states.
Virginia’s fourth- and eighth-graders were proficient in math at 48 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Though better than most states’ percentages, those numbers still leave plenty of room for improvement.