Editorial — A rallying cry for public schools

Published 12:30 pm Thursday, June 2, 2022

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The alarm bells will be muted — even ignored — thanks to bitter partisan division over public education, but a report last week by the state Department of Education should be a wakeup call for all Virginians.

Stakeholders of all political persuasions should put aside, at least for a moment, arguments about Critical Race Theory, face masks and other hot-button emotional debates and focus squarely on the report’s findings:

• Virginia has the nation’s lowest proficiency standards in reading and mathematics.

• Pre-COVID results from college entrance examinations taken by 2019 Virginia high graduates reveal wide deficiencies in college readiness, especially in mathematics.

• In 2021, 42% of Virginia second graders scored below the benchmark on an early literacy screening assessment.

• In perhaps the report’s biggest indictment of public education, homeschooling increased 56% in 2020-21, with 59,638 children leaving public schools. The trend continued this year, despite a return to in-person instruction, as the parents of 55,769 students chose to teach them at home. Nearly 6,000 students have transferred from public schools to in-state private schools since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.

State Superintendent of Education- Jillian Balow said the report should create a “sense of urgency and importance for all of us.”

We agree.

The report noted that, despite statistically significant declines in the reading performance of Virginia students on 2019 national and state assessments, the state Board of Education in 2020 lowered the proficiency standard on Standards of Learning reading tests for all grades. The Board of Education’s Standards of Accreditation now de-emphasize grade-level proficiency in reading and math, masking wide achievement gaps, especially for Black and Hispanic students, whose test scores lag white students’ scores even more than before the standards were relaxed, creating what the report calls an “honesty gap.”

The report also found that 38% of Virginia fourth graders and 33% of eighth graders were proficient in reading on a 2019 national assessment, compared to 75% and 76%, respectively, on the 2019 state SOL reading tests. Some 71% of Black fourth graders demonstrated proficiency on the 2019 math SOL compared to 26% on the national test. For Hispanics, the gap was 77% on the SOL compared to 36% on the national test.

The report added that 45% of Virginia public high school seniors in 2019, including 76% of Black and 56% of Hispanic seniors, were not college-ready in math on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

It’s time to pause the partisan bickering, commit to higher standards for public schools and, more important, identify and fund the tools needed to meet those standards. That includes paying salaries that attract and retain the best and brightest teachers, creating safe classrooms where discipline is enforced, and empowering those teachers to impart important knowledge free of bureaucratic restraints.