While his 2021 Democratic opponent was busy trying to distract voters by constantly talking about former President Donald Trump, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was focused like a laser on the most important issue for millions of Virginians: education. Youngkin’s promises to fix Virginia schools won him the votes of thousands of moderates and Democrats, propelling him to victory in what has become a reliably blue state.
Youngkin immediately followed up on his promise to fix Virginia schools with Executive Order One, which among other items, directed Virginia's superintendent of public instruction to issue a report on the achievement gap between demographics in the public school system.
Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow released that report last week. It is a damning indictment of the last six years of education policy in the Old Dominion.
Virginia used to have one of the best school systems in the nation, with the state's student Advanced Placement achievement ranking third nationally. That number has since fallen to ninth, beginning with when the state began watering down its Standards of Learning tests in 2015.
The numbers for 2021 have not been released, but between 2015 and 2019, the fourth-grade reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test fell from 43% in 2015 to 38% in 2019. Those losses are sure to have grown during the teachers union-led shutdowns of 2020. According to one recent study of 11 states, of which Virginia had the lowest in-person school rate studied, Virginia had the greatest decline in state achievement pass rates.
Not only were black and Hispanic achievement rates far behind that of Asian and white NAEP achievement rates in 2019, but studies have shown that black and Hispanic schools were the most likely to have the fewest in-person school days, and those schools with the lowest amount of in-person learning also suffered the greatest amount of learning loss.
Fortunately, Youngkin has already acted on a bipartisan basis to turn Virginia’s schools around. Last month, he signed the Virginia Literacy Act into law, which requires teachers to use the best science when teaching students to read and requires schools to create individualized reading plans for those students not on track to have grade-level reading proficiency by the third grade.
Separately, Youngkin has pledged to work with the state legislature to strengthen the SOL standards that were weakened by the previous administration. Parents deserve an accurate picture of how their students and schools are doing. Watered-down tests won’t deliver that.
Youngkin has also pledged to increase parent involvement in the school system, recently creating an Office of Parental Engagement within the Virginia Department of Education. We hope this office reaches out to bipartisan organizations such as the Fairfax County Parents Association. Groups like the FCPA were instrumental in getting many Virginia schools to reopen. They have other positive suggestions, such as breaking up school districts with budgets larger than a billion dollars into smaller-sized districts with greater accountability.
There is no doubt that achievement gaps exist between demographics in Virginia schools and all schools nationwide. But those gaps will not be closed by watering down tests to cover up their existence. The only way to close achievement gaps is to assess where they exist through testing and then aggressively help those students that need it.
That is the path Youngkin has started down, and the commonwealth would be well off if he continued to do so.