Virginia Board of Education pans Youngkin report on K-12 student achievement

Members say underfunding, not changing standards, are to blame for declining test scores

By: - June 16, 2022 12:03 am

The Virginia Department of Education’s offices in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. The agency has recently launched new initiatives aimed at teacher recruitment and retention with the help of federal aid money. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Over the course of nearly an hour Wednesday, Virginia Board of Education members criticized a report on student achievement released last month by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, describing it as disappointing and demoralizing for teachers and administrators across the state. 

The conversation, which dominated a portion of the meeting reserved for discussing current education issues, underscored the growing partisanship on the typically nine-person board, which currently has three vacancies after House Republicans blocked the confirmation of three interim members appointed by former Gov. Ralph Northam.

The board’s remaining members were appointed by either Northam or his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. All have had a hand in some of the body’s most significant decisions over the last several years, from changes to Virginia’s school accreditation process to an initiative to rethink math curricula to a racial justice statement unanimously adopted by the board just a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.  

Many of those policy choices were faulted by the Youngkin administration in a 34-page report, released last month, that painted a gloomy picture of the state’s K-12 academic progress. Youngkin’s superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Balow, credited “decisions made at the state level” for creating confusion and downplaying troubling trends, maintaining that 2017 accreditation changes contributed to declining state test scores in reading and math.

Jillian Balow, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction. (Wyoming Department of Education)

The administration has also been highly critical of two board votes, in 2019 and 2020, to lower so-called “cut scores” — the number of correct answers needed to demonstrate proficiency on state standardized tests — in English and math. The decisions were made as part of regularly scheduled adjustments to Virginia’s Standards of Learning in both subjects. But some, including Balow, argue the change pushed the state far below national proficiency standards.

“Virginia cannot afford to rest on its past reputation,” she wrote in the report. “We are facing declines in student performance that started long before the pandemic and were illuminated and exacerbated over the last two years.”

Virtually all of the state’s current board members, though (with the exception of Keisha Anderson, who was not present for Wednesday’s meeting), said they were given no input into the report and only received a copy the day before it was publicly released. 

Both Francisco Durán and Dan Gecker, the board’s president, described the administration’s claims as “misinformation,” saying the document ignored most of the fundamental policy issues contributing to declining achievement — a problem that members had been trying to address for years.

“It was, in fact, a disappointment to me — and I think to the rest of the board — to read the report and have it come out without us having seen it,” Gecker said. “And to basically suggest that it’s a standards problem, when, in fact, we believe strongly it is a resource problem and a problem with how we are spending those resources.”

The board’s concerns with education spending in Virginia have spanned years, and members have called out policy decisions even when Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the General Assembly. In 2020, for example, the board’s annual report on the condition and needs of K-12 education maintained that Virginia schools “continue to be underfunded,” with some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country and cuts to per-pupil spending that hadn’t been restored more than decade after the end of the Great Recession.

(Getty Images)

‘Nobody wants to sign up for a suicide mission’

While much of the coverage of Balow’s report has focused on the administration’s interpretation of national proficiency standards, board members argued that a lack of funding — particularly when it comes to teacher salaries — has been the root cause of declining test scores. 

Anne Holton, who is married to Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and served as the state’s secretary of education from 2014 to 2016, pointed to statewide concern when the majority of students at a school in Petersburg failed the state’s math SOL exam. But when state leaders visited, she said, they realized that the city was struggling with a shortage of teachers — one that left some students without a permanent math instructor for more than two months.

“Nobody wants to sign up for a suicide mission,” added Tammy Mann, the board’s vice president, when she addressed the administration’s report. “And sometimes, working in systems where you don’t have what you need, people aren’t willing to say, ‘Sign me up for that.’”

The ongoing lack of funding for public education has also driven some of the board’s decisions when it comes to scoring and metrics for public schools, some members said. The 2017 changes to standards of accreditation, for example, were decided amid a nationwide rethinking of standardized tests that some critics said prioritized rote memorization over critical thinking skills. At the time, state approval of public schools depended almost solely on student pass rates, and most board members worried the process ignored high-poverty school districts that were making improvements despite more limited resources.

But in a previous interview with the Mercury, Holton also said there was concern over the overall impact on schools that failed to meet Virginia’s earlier accreditation standards. The state doesn’t have the authority to shut down public schools, and a 2020 report by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission found the Virginia Department of Education failed to provide adequate support to struggling school systems. 

When school divisions didn’t meet the state’s earlier standards, Gecker said, teachers frequently fled and higher-income families either left or avoided the district. The net effect only exacerbated challenges within the division, and the state’s underfunded Department of Education largely lacked the resources to encourage real improvements.

“Labeling a school as failing often has an impact contrary to that which was originally intended,” he said. “Instead of receiving additional resources and being encouraged to improve, the flight from schools that were perceived to be of lesser quality had the impact of segregating the system along socioeconomic lines.”

“You’re giving the accreditation system way too much credit,” Holton added, pointing out that the new standards didn’t go into effect until the 2018-19 school year — not enough time to have any impact on the declining 2019 scores cited by the Youngkin administration, she said.

‘We absolutely need to partner in a bipartisan way’

However, like other board members, Holton said there are areas in which the state’s current education leaders agree with concerns raised by Balow and the governor. Specifically, she said the state’s current accreditation system is too complex for parents or even board members to fully understand, given it incorporates not only improvement on test scores but other measures including absenteeism, dropout rates and college readiness. 

Gecker also said the board has been raising concerns with Virginia’s declining proficiency based on national standards since at least 2019.

But broad disagreement with the Youngkin administration’s assessment of public education is likely an omen of future conflict on the state board. Both Durán and Anderson’s terms expire at the end of June, giving Youngkin the opportunity to appoint a majority of members within the first six months of his term. Education experts say the rapid shift could lead to fast-tracked changes in the state’s standards of accreditation for schools and expectations for student success.

The board’s remaining Democrat-appointed members, though, urged the administration not to let politics overshadow future decision-making.

“I do understand a new administration’s inclination to come in and declare everything terrible so they can fix it,” Holton said. “But in this day and age, on these issues so important, we absolutely need to partner in a bipartisan way.”

“There shouldn’t be anything partisan about the need to help our most struggling students succeed,” she said, pointing to the administration’s recent push to scrub the word “equity” from the state’s Department of Education. “Whether you call it ‘equity’ or ‘opportunity’ or ‘purple.’”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.