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SOL scores sag, but students beat Virginia test averages / September 08, 2021
Mecklenburg students fared worse in the most recent round of SOL testing than they did in 2019, the last time the accountability exams were given prior to the pandemic, but the plunge in test scores in the county was less acute than the average dropoff statewide.

The 2020-21 Virginia Standards of Learning test results provide ample evidence of massive learning loss in the past school year, due to students and teachers being asked to conduct classes remotely at home to stem the spread of COVID in school buildings.

Mecklenburg County was one of the few school divisions in Virginia to bring students back into classrooms for in-person, face-to-face instruction, albeit on a hybrid schedule, for much of the 2020-21 school year.

Even so, the county’s SOL scores results took a significant hit.

Comparisons to the 2018-19 school year, when SOL exams were given pre-pandemic, suggest that math education was most affected by students being away from classrooms. In the 2019 test round, 85 percent of Mecklenburg students passed their math SOLs. In 2021, that pass rate plunged to 56 percent.

The declines were less severe on English and reading SOL tests, with an average pass rate of 72 percent for Mecklenburg students in 2021, compared to 78 percent in 2019. On science SOL tests, the pass rate for Mecklenburg students in 2021 was 59 percent. In 2019, the science pass rate was 79 percent.

While county scores declined in absolute terms, relative to the rest of Virginia, Mecklenburg students more than kept pace. Local SOL pass rates for math, English and science exceeded statewide averages in each subject: by three points in English (Mecklenburg, 72 percent pass rate, Virginia average, 69 percent), by two points in math (Mecklenburg, 56 percent, Virginia, 54 percent) and five points in science (Mecklenburg, 59 percent, Virginia, 54 percent).

Because of the extraordinary nature of the pandemic, and the resulting wave of unprecedented school closures, the Virginia Department of Education cautions against comparing the most recent test score averages to the 2019 pass rates.

According to the VDOE, this year’s “pass rates reflect disruptions to instruction caused by the pandemic, decreased participation in state assessment programs, pandemic-related declines in enrollment, fewer retakes, and more flexible ‘opt-out’ provisions for parents concerned about community spread of COVID-19.”

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said the disruptions of the past year were bound to take a toll on SOL test scores, and on K-12 education generally, and making up for student learning loss will take time.

He pointed to one recent area of progress: the resumption of in-person classroom learning with the recently-completed summer school session that drew some 400 to 450 students.

“This was the largest summer school class we ever had,” Nichols said.

Moving forward, Nichols said Mecklenburg County Public Schools plans to use a portion of the $15 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars the school division will receive to close ongoing achievement gaps.

“It is an ongoing process that was not fixed over one summer,” Nichols said, adding that the ongoing focus of MCPS will be to serve all students by delivering on their academic as well as their social and emotional needs.

There are no scores for the 2019-20 school year since SOLs were canceled with Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to close schools in March 2020.

The 2021 math SOL test results point to the struggles of Mecklenburg County students across all subgroups. Pass rates for Black students declined by 36 points, for White students the dropoff was 23 points, and for Hispanic students the decline was 26 points. Math pass rates for other student subgroups also plummeted: for economically disadvantaged students, by 34 points; for English learners, by 41 points; students with disabilities, 25 points; males, 26 points; and females, 31 points.

Nichols reasoned that math is a subject area requiring high-order thinking skills that take the most time to develop. “It is very difficult for teachers engaged in remote learning to get a full sense of the student’s progress,” he said. The plunge also reflects a change in math SOL tests, Nichols added: “In the past, the SOL promoted memorization much more than other skills. So now we have to go back and make up for that.”

At Chase City Elementary, students did not meet or exceed the statewide average in any of the test areas, with overall scores of 59 in English/reading, 47 in math and 34 in science. At La Crosse Elementary, students matched statewide passing rate in science with 54 percent. However, overall performance on the English/reading and math SOL tests lagged behind the state averages, with a 63 percent pass rate in English and 51 percent in math.

Average pass rates at Clarksville Elementary School were 73 percent in reading, 60 percent in math and 58 percent in science. At South Hill Elementary, pass rates were 72 percent in reading, 63 percent in science and 60 percent in math. Students at both schools performed above the state averages.

Also topping the state averages were students at the county’s four secondary schools — Bluestone High School and Middle School, and Park View High and Middle. Collective pass rates at Bluestone High were 76 percent in English, 66 percent in math and 66 percent in science. At Park View High School, pass rates were 84 percent in English, 57 percent in math and 60 percent in science.

At Bluestone Middle School, 77 percent of students pass the English SOLs, 57 percent passed in math and 73 percent passed in science. At Park View Middle, pass rates were 75 percent in English, 54 percent in math and 54 percent in science.

All students were required to take the SOL tests in school buildings last spring “to maintain testing security protocols,” according to the VDOE. While he did not have an exact number, Nichols said most Mecklenburg County students did take SOL exams for the 2020-21 academic year. Bringing students inside school buildings to take the tests, after being away much of the school year, presented challenges, Nichols conceded. “It’s really hard to get students to come to school to take tests when they’re learning virtually,” he said.

During the 2020-21 school year, approximately 35 percent of Mecklenburg County students opted for full-time remote learning at home.

Nichols attributes the decline in SOL pass rates for Mecklenburg County students more to poverty conditions than any other factor. There is also no data to account for the impact of less-than-reliable internet service on student performance over the past 18 months.

With students in the secondary grades (grades 6-12) alternating between in-person and virtual classes every other week, and with elementary students learning virtually on Fridays or opting for full-time remote learning, reliable internet service was essential to their education.

Even before the test results were published, Nichols said Mecklenburg County Public Schools is taking a proactive approach to reverse the learning losses that educators suspected would show up in the SOL outcomes.

The recent SOL results will not affect school accreditation ratings. All Virginia schools will have the rating “Accreditation Waived,” as during 2020-2021. Nichols said he had received no information on whether schools would also have their accreditations waived for the 2022-23 school year.

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