After schools throughout the nation shut down unexpectedly nearly eighteen months ago - requiring millions of students to transition to remote learning for an extended time - many experts began to worry that children might fall behind. Soon, parents of children in Virginia will know if those worries were valid.
This fall, students in the third through eighth grade will be first in line to participate in Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) "growth assessments," a new testing tool designed to measure how much catching up students might have to do in reading and math.
The assessments were developed in response to a bill passed by the 2021 Virginia General Assembly. That law mandates that the state’s public schools administer growth assessments in reading and math in the fall, in addition to the typical Standards of Learning (SOL) tests students take at the end of the school year in the spring.
“These new assessments are timely in that they will provide teachers and other educators with baseline data showing exactly where students are in reading and mathematics as they return to school after the disruptions to learning caused by the pandemic,” Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said. “Teachers will use performance data from the fall tests to craft instruction that meets the individual needs of every student, with the goal of achieving proficiency or significant growth by the end of the year.”
According to VDOE, the newly developed growth assessments will be notably shorter than the Standard of Learning tests and will be conducted online for most students. Unlike the SOLs, the tests will be based on the previous year's content. An incoming fourth-grader, for example, will be tested on what they learned in the third grade.
"The growth assessments will help students to complete unfinished learning from the pandemic as they assess content from the previous grade level," Ken Blackstone, Executive Director of Communications for VDOE, told The Triangle. "Measuring content from the previous grade level will help teachers and other educators identify unfinished learning from 2020-2021 where students need additional assistance and practice.”
Growth assessment testing is scheduled to run from the beginning of the school year through October 15, according to VDOE. School divisions are asked to identify a three- to four-week testing window within that time frame to ensure all students in grades three through eight participate in the assessments.
"It's so important to determine where each child is in their learning coming out of the pandemic so that our teachers can map out where students need to get to and how their progress can be measured along the way," Lane said in a video statement.
A trove of recent data suggests that the pandemic has indeed had negative impacts on learning for many students throughout the Historic Triangle and across the state, in general.
For starters, nearly all schools in the region noted markedly higher SOL fail rates in 2020-2021 compared to the 2018-2019 school year, according to data recently released by VDOE. SOLs were not conducted during 2019-2020 because of the unexpected school closures that began in the spring of that year.
In Williamsburg-James City County, the pass rate among all tested students dropped from 81 percent to 73 percent in reading and, even more alarmingly, from 86 to 60 percent in math.
The declines were even more dramatic among economically disadvantaged students, students of color and students with disabilities – fueling concerns that the pandemic has further amplified inequities among students.
Among economically disadvantaged students in W-JCC, only 37 percent passed in math - down from 73 percent last year. Just over half, 52 percent, passed in reading, compared to a rate of 65 percent in 2018-2019.
The gaps were similarly worrying among Black students in the division, with 53 percent passing in reading, down ten points from last year, and 37 passing in math, compared to 69 percent in the last testing period.
Students with disabilities in the district fared slightly better in reading, with a drop in pass rates of just five points - 46 percent to 41 percent - compared to 2019. However, they suffered steep setbacks in math, with a pass rate of only 32 percent in 2021 compared to 59 percent in the previous assessment year.
The declines were not quite as dramatic in York County, but the results are still concerning. In reading, the pass rate among all students in the division was down by just one point, from 88 to 87. But in math, the gap was more obvious, with only 77 percent of students attaining a passing score compared to an impressive 92 percent during the prior assessment year.
Black students in York County were particularly impacted, attaining a pass rate in math of 51 percent in 2021, compared to 82 percent previously.
Science scores also dropped significantly among all groups of students in 2021 SOL testing in both W-JCC and York County, but this fall's growth assessments will focus solely on reading and math.
The SOLs are part of a federally mandated testing requirement and, in a typical year, about 99 percent of affected students participate, according to the VDOE. In 2021, however, less than 80 percent of students in applicable grades took the assessments.
A survey conducted by The Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University in December 2020 suggested that more than 60 percent of parents believed their child's school did a good job handling instruction last fall amid surging Covid-19 cases. Nonetheless, the vast majority – 75 percent – were already concerned their children were falling behind.
“Parents are juggling work, caregiving responsibilities, and helping their kids through virtual school,” said Wason Center Research Director Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo. “Most may believe their school systems are doing the best they can, but it’s no surprise that so many are worried about their children’s progress.”
Despite ongoing pandemic-related learning challenges, however, Blackstone remains optimistic that schools across the state will be able to make meaningful progress toward helping students get back on track, starting with the administration of the new growth assessments this fall.
"In terms of reassuring parents, I can say that individual student score reports will be provided with details of how students performed on each test item, but the growth assessments do not include a passing/failing score," said Blackstone. "The focus on these assessments is on identifying what students have already learned as well as the skills they may need additional help with during this school year."