We need a deeper dive

In August, the Virginia Department of Education released the annual compiling of our students’ Standards of Learning test scores and, more recently, the scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests came out nationally. Such events are always met with headlines and comments from appointed and elected officials, and this year was certainly no exception.

Coming on the heels of a global pandemic, it came as no surprise that student performance was down when compared to pre-COVID results, even after herculean efforts from school systems and educators to maintain learning by switching from in-person classes to virtual instruction. Unfortunately, the family and technology infrastructure needed to make online learning successful was not always in place. As a result, I believe it will take students, their families, and teachers years to recover from this significant disruption.

Reacting to the SOL scores, Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, noted that while we were fighting achievement gaps before COVID, we are now even further from closing them. Why are we always trying to recover ground related to achievement gaps in Virginia?

Virginia’s students began taking SOL tests in 1998. What have we learned from 24 years of testing data? Are we any better equipped to understand students, their families, our communities, schools, and teachers now than we were then?

I believe test score data is very incomplete and can be misleading. For example, in single-parent homes during the pandemic, does the data capture the impact felt when older siblings miss multiple middle and high school classes to care for younger siblings?

Does the data uncover the effect disruptive students have on their own learning, and the learning of classmates?

Does the data reveal the consequences of prolonged achievement gaps?

Are these gaps grounded in our inability to solve malignant challenges related to family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity?

Does the data capture the morale of teachers who attempt, every day, to deliver high-quality instruction in increasingly challenging environments?

If we hope to recover instructional ground and close achievement gaps, we must commit to the hard work of answering those questions, and more. And it will be hard work, much more difficult than merely collecting test scores and then making public statement about them. Continuing to place blame for unsatisfactory SOL test results on the shoulders of teachers and school system leaders is misguided.

Maybe a week shadowing a teacher in a challenging school could change the minds (and comments) of some of our elected and appointed officials.

Since some of us are quick to blame disappointing SOL scores on teachers, I wonder if Governor Glenn Youngkin’s “tip line” saw an uptick in calls when the SOL and NAEP test scores were released. Additionally, I wonder if that “tip line” contributed to the current teacher shortage school systems face?

Truthfully, school systems have always scrambled to fill teaching positions before each new school year begins. In 1975, I began my teaching career as a last-minute hire and, as an administrator, I was later on the other side of making those hires. We have witnessed many changes since then. Often in immeasurable ways, students are affected by disruptive changes in their families and communities. Despite these changes, teachers are continually asked to be “first responders” to our societal challenges, while still delivering excellent instruction.

If we truly want to both improve standardized test scores and close achievement gaps, we need to move beyond predictable political finger-pointing. With urgency, we must commit to a deeper dive into the troublesome data, because troublesome numbers are not just statistics—they represent struggling students. Struggling students who desperately need our help. For too long, we’ve overlooked the multiple needs of many of them. We can’t afford to do so any longer.

Understanding how the academic potential of these students is affected by family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity factors is pivotal. And while it will be complicated and involve more effort, if we fail to make this discovery for every struggling student, then we will neither see improvement in SOL scores, nor will we close gaps in achievement.

For too long, we have failed to adequately address how these vicious generational patterns impact our classrooms. The unsteady family, the single parent working three jobs, the fragile, volatile student who urgently needs mental health services, the family who is crammed into a hotel room or living out of a car, the unsafe neighborhood, and the widening division of equity all reside within the walls of a school building.

Those unwavering human infrastructure challenges impact every person who is employed in a school, and embedded in that impact is morale. It is quite possible that morale is at the heart of every teacher resignation and every personnel opening a school system is advertising to fill. The tension of this human trauma makes me wonder if our vision for educating the children in our communities is outdated and no longer adequate.

Maybe this quote from Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, says it best: “You don’t get the good without the bad, but you really do have to see it all in order to make progress.”

In Virginia, if we are going to make progress with test scores and achievement gaps, we must work together “to see it all” for every student.

Author’s note: This story appeared in the December 2022 edition of the Virginia Journal of Education. Thanks to editor, Tom Allen, for improving the piece and for allowing me to expand it.

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