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by Brandon Jarvis

Governor Glenn Youngkin released a report Thursday in which his administration highlights what they believe to be poor decision-making at the state level in recent years when determining educational standards and policies in the commonwealth. The report from Youngkin’s Department of Education says expectations were lowered resulting in a wider achievement gap in Virginia’s public schools. 

The report states that Virginia now has the lowest proficiency standards in reading and mathematics in the nation, resulting in wide “honesty gaps” between the performance of students on state Standards of Learning (SOL) tests and performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The NAEP measures student achievement and is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what students know and can do in various subject areas. SOLs are tests administered under state guidelines. 

According to the report, the Board of Education voted in 2020 to lower the proficiency standard on all elementary, middle school, and high school SOL reading tests despite declines in the reading performance of Virginia students on the 2019 NAEP and state assessments. 

 “What we do know is that leaders changed definitions, they lowered expectations, and they reduced the importance of proficiency in determining school quality and accreditation – and often they did this in the name of equity,” Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said during a press call Thursday. “President Bush used to call this the soft bigotry of low expectations.” 

The report also identified other critical areas that need to be addressed: there is a wider achievement gap for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students, there is reduced transparency around outcomes and startling downward trendlines, and there is eroding parent confidence in the commonwealth’s schools.

“The data in this report demonstrates that Virginia’s student achievement gaps are disturbing and cannot be ignored,” Youngkin said in a statement Thursday. “This report documents a clear and sobering lesson on the consequences for students when state leaders lower academic standards and dismantle accountability.”

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) is a high school teacher in Henrico and he welcomeas the chance to work together to improve education but he is wary of the Youngkin administration’s motives. 

“I’ll work with anybody who wants to make public education better,” VanValkenburg said. “Where I am skeptical is that the report lacks context and cherry picks a lot of information.” 

VanValkenburg says he will not be okay with Youngkin using this report to try and pass a right-wing agenda. “I will fight that.”  

Senate Democrats also released a statement Thursday denouncing the report. “To accuse Virginia’s education system of failure is an outright lie, supported by cherry-picked data and warped perspective. The Commonwealth’s schools have been ranked fourth in the nation by Forbes Magazine–hardly a liberal publication–and the best high school in the nation according to US News & World Report is right here in Fairfax County,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said. 

“The report released by Governor Youngkin today is a joke designed to undermine and criticize the Board of Education, public school administrators, and teachers–ignoring the hard work they have done, even in the midst of a pandemic,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Lock also noted. “These proposals–if you can call dog-whistle talking points as such–prove the Youngkin Administration’s incompetence in developing real-world policy.”

State Superintendent Jillian Balow emphasized in a statement released through the Youngkin office that this report is not an attack on school employees – but instead, it is a criticism of the people who have been in charge of policy-making decisions across Virginia. ​​“I want to stress that this report is not an indictment of our teachers, principals, and other school leaders. They have worked tirelessly over the last few years under extraordinary conditions and circumstances,” Balow said in a statement. “But local decision-making inevitably reflects priorities and policy choices determined at the state level.”

The report also stated that pre-pandemic results from college entrance examinations taken by 2019 Virginia high school graduates show wide disparities in college readiness, especially in mathematics, 42% of Virginia second-graders scored below the benchmark on the Commonwealth’s early literacy screening assessment last fall, and homeschooling increased by 56% in 2020-2021 as the parents of 59,638 school-age children chose not to send their children to public schools. The Covid-19 pandemic likely had an impact on that number, however.

Moving forward, the guiding principles for education-related decisions in Virginia are expected to follow these guidelines from Youngkin:

  • Establish and maintain high expectations for students, schools, and ourselves.
  • Advance parent and teacher empowerment to best serve students in partnership.
  • Demand zero-tolerance for discrimination in education and beyond.
  • Foster innovation in all education environments.
  • Provide transparency and accountability so that each child is seen and receives what they need to succeed.
  • Ensure post-secondary readiness so that all learners can succeed in life.
  • Protect and nurture freedom of speech and inquiry to ensure every student is taught how to think, not what to think. 

“Working alongside parents, teachers, and policymakers, we will restore excellence in education and ensure that all students have access to quality education opportunities that prepare them for success in our workplaces, our communities, and our democracy,” Youngkin said.

The complete “Our Commitment to Virginians: High Expectations and Excellence for All Students” report is available here.

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By vascope