While there is a general trend toward modest 5-year improvements on some Results (academic performance) indicators, the data are somewhat mixed and indeed challenging to interpret.

Table 2 shows 5-year data on six indicators of school performance. The indicators showing modest improvement include the K-3 retention rate, the 9th grade retention rate, and the drop-out rate. These gains are somewhat encouraging, but they should be interpreted with some caution. Retention rates, for example, can fluctuate over time in part because retention practices are influenced by subjective factors such as shifting education policy priorities. For instance, retention rates declined nationwide when educators favored “social promotion” and increased when social promotion fell out of favor. It is difficult to determine if changes in retention rates are due to demonstrable changes in student “promotability,” or to shifting retention criteria and practices.

In contrast, five-year results on 3rd grade SOL scores and on PALS-K performance are less encouraging. On SOL tests, both Reading and Math performance increased and peaked in school year 2015-16; and then both declined for two consecutive years through school year 2017-18, though performance on both is still higher than it was five years ago.

The percentage of kindergarteners who fail to meet the literacy benchmark score on the Fall PALS-K measure has increased (i.e. performance has worsened) for four straight years – from 12.5 percent in 2013-14 to 16.0 percent in 2017-18. However, this 4-year trend may be impacted by a change that took place in the 2015-16 school year, when the literacy threshold score was raised, making it harder to “pass.” This should have caused a higher fail rate for 2015-16, and it did, from 12.9 to 13.8 percent.

Logically one would expect that in succeeding years the fail rate, all other things being equal, would stabilize at its new level, but in fact the performance decline continued for two additional years, to 14.6 in 2016-17 and 16.0 in 2017-18. This suggests that the decline in the past two years may be a genuine performance decline rather than an artifact of the threshold change.

The results on an alternate PALS-K metric – statewide average sum scores – support this interpretation. Sum scores are not affected by the change in threshold, and as shown in Table 3, these scores over four years have declined slightly from their 2013 peak. The simultaneous two-year drop in PALS-K pass rates and sum scores may be an early warning signal of a genuine decline in the literacy skills of Virginia five-year olds.

The “Risk” section suggests one plausible interpretation of the recent declines in PALS-K and SOL results. Starting in school year 2013-14, each pool of students taking the PALS-K has included a far greater number of students than in previous years who lived in poverty for their entire first five years of life. This will be true of all succeeding cohorts for the next 5-6 years. As stated earlier, children with prolonged exposure to poverty are more likely to start school already behind, hence a dip in average PALS-K scores and “Pass” rates, while unwelcome, is not unexpected.

The impact of this prolonged poverty exposure on 3rd grade SOL results is obviously delayed until the cohorts enter 3rd grade. The first “higher poverty” cohort reached third grade in the 16-17 school year, which is also the first year in the past five showing a decline in SOL scores. While the data can’t prove that higher child poverty caused the recent PALS-K and SOL performance decline, it is a plausible argument given that these outcomes and their timing both align with this interpretation. At the very least, the recent decline may signal an emerging negative poverty-associated trend that bears careful monitoring.

Figures 2 and 3 display data showing the magnitude of key Results disparities, clearly demonstrating their severity. The largest performance gap on both the PALS-K and the 3rd grade Reading SOL is between economically disadvantaged vs. non-disadvantaged students (14.0 points and 21.6 points respectively, with non-disadvantaged students performing better). This is another indication of the toxic impact of poverty on school readiness and early academic achievement. Also notable: the second largest disparity on 3rd grade reading is the Black-White gap, which at 20.4 points is nearly as wide as the disadvantaged vs. non-disadvantaged gap of 21.6.

While the nature and magnitude of these persistent disparities are very troubling, it is most relevant in the context of this report to inquire whether these disparities or “achievement gaps” are changing over time. This question is addressed by data in Figures 4 and 5 showing 5-year trend lines for selected student groups on PALS-K performance and 3rd grade SOL Reading performance. While the performance of the respective student groups varies over time, the gaps between groups stay constant – visually, the trend lines for each group vary in unison, such that the distance between the lines remains nearly the same year after year (3rd grade Math SOL results, not pictured, show the same pattern). These data strongly support a conclusion that racial/ethnic and income-based achievement gaps generally are not improving; and in fact the reading performance of Hispanic students relative to others has worsened (Figure 5).

Geographic disparities are also a prominent concern. Communities differ on a variety of Results (academic performance) indicators, and this variability is often related to community poverty levels. One simple illustration of such disparities is presented in Figure 6. The graph shows average PALS-K results and SOL 3rd grade results for two groups – the 26 school divisions (top quintile of all divisions) with the highest birth-four poverty rates vs. the 26 (bottom quintile) with the lowest rates. As expected, results are much worse for the “high poverty” group of communities. Clearly, communities with higher rates of early childhood poverty are more likely to produce lower PALS-K and SOL 3rd grade results, emphasizing both stark geographic disparities and once again the relevance of the child poverty risk factor.

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