SOL reading drops trump math rises, despite DOE framing

November 10, 2013

By Jeannette Porter

The Virginia Department of Education press release about the 2012-13 scores was headlined, “Students Make Gains on All Mathematics SOLs,” but the math gains were scant compared to reading losses.  A recent comparison of the 2011-12 and the 2012-13 Virginia SOL reading and math scores by school division shows an average 14-point drop in reading scores and a 2-point gain in math scores.

The math equation

The statewide math SOL passing rate was 71 percent in 2012-13 — 2 percentage points better than the previous year.

Craig County, located just north of Blacksburg and Roanoke in the mountains on the border with West Virginia, led the state in year-over-year math gains. The county’s passing rate jumped 12 percentage points, to 73 percent.

Craig County Superintendent Kelly Wilmore described his division as “very small, rural with a very high poverty rate,” he emailed.

“We have focused on utilizing data to drive instruction, hands-on activities in math … as well as integrating technology into the classroom,” he continued.  “The key is always the teachers and their staff development component.

“One other important thing,” Wilmore added: “HIGH EXPECTATIONS for ALL shareholders (kids, parents, teachers, principals, aides, etc.)”

In a fifth of the 132 divisions reporting, students actually lost ground.  The biggest math loser was Amelia County, located in Central Virginia, an hour or so west of Richmond.  Amelia lost 9 percentage points on the math exam, year over year — more than any other division in the state.  However, division Superintendent B.J. Brewer was bloodied but unbowed.

“We know there’s a problem,” Brewer said.  “The fact that math scores in surrounding counties also declined is not a consolation.”

(Brewer was referring to pass rate drops of 1 to 5 points in other divisions in her region, such as Buckingham, Cumberland, Prince Edward and Appomattox counties.)

“Our passing rate of 58 percent is far from the lowest in the state,” she said, “and we’re focused on the changes we’ve made already this year to improve that rate.”

Those measures include new math textbooks aligned with the SOLs, which were updated in 2009; tutoring support; analysis of individual student performance “to individualize instruction,” improved professional development for teachers and smaller teacher-to-student ratios.

“We anticipated a drop, but we were clearly not prepared,” Brewer summed up.  “Our performance was unacceptable, but with these new measures we expect better results in 2013-14.”

The reading story

There were no winners in reading; every division’s reading scores dropped.  The statewide pass rate on the reading SOLs was 75 percent in 2012-13, down from 89 percent the previous year.

“The English and science SOL tests students took during 2012-13 were the first to reflect the increased rigor of revised standards adopted in these subject areas by the Board of Education in 2010,” the VDOE press release said.

Richmond City Public Schools led the statewide plummet off the cliff with a drop of 29 points, resulting in a 50 percent pass rate.

“With the incorporation of increased rigor in the state’s new reading standards, we were expecting a slight dip in our scores, but not to the degree we witnessed,” Felicia Cosby, Richmond City Public Schools’ public information officer, said in an email.   “We are still examining the data to determine why we experienced such a drastic decline in our reading performance–an area that traditionally has been a strength. We are carefully looking at our strategies and programs to determine what is working and what is not working.”

Falls Church City Public Schools had the smallest decrease in passing rates on the reading SOLs.  That district’s rates dropped 5 points to a 91 percent pass rate.

Superintendent Toni Jones ascribed her division’s relatively positive performance in part to “an environment that is supportive and focused on student growth, inquiry and integrated learning.

“Reading is the most important content area for our children,” she emailed.  “We want our students to love reading, and our enthusiasm for literature is woven through the fabric of our schools.”

The data, from the Virginia Department of Education, are available here: