Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series, reprinting the Virginia Board of Education’s SOL history published in the 2013 Annual Report on the Conditions and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia. This part discusses international comparisons for Virginia’s students and examines the state’s performance in the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams.
In October 2013, a long-awaited National Center for Education Statistics study connecting 2011 NAEP mathematics and science scores of American students with results from the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) ranked Virginia eighth graders above international averages in both subjects.
The study ranked the mathematics achievement of Virginia eighth graders higher than that of peers in 39 countries and systems, including Finland. Finland’s public schools are frequently held up as a model for states to emulate. Only students in South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan (Chinese Taipei), Hong Kong, Japan, Russia and Quebec ranked higher. Mathematics achievement in one country — Israel — was found to be similar to achievement in Virginia.
The study found that Virginia eighth graders achieved at a statistically higher level in science than students in 37 countries and systems, including Hong Kong and Russia. Students in only four countries — Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan — were ranked higher. The study rated the science achievement of students in six countries and systems — including Finland — as equivalent to that of Virginia students.
The 2013 NAEP reading and mathematics tests showed that the reading skills of Virginia fourth-grade students improved significantly between 2009 and 2013. Forty-three percent of the commonwealth’s grade-4 students met or exceeded the NAEP proficiency, compared with 38 percent four years earlier.
In mathematics, 47 percent of the state’s fourth graders achieved scores at or above the proficient level, compared with 46 percent in 2011, 43 percent in 2009 and 42 percent in 2007. The improvement since 2007 was seen as statistically significant.
The reading achievement of Virginia eighth graders on the 2013 NAEP was flat. Thirty-six percent achieved at or above the proficient level in reading, the same percentage as in 2011.
“The 2010 revisions to the English SOL place increased emphasis on strengthening adolescent literacy and equipping students with the reading skills they will need during their first year of college or in the work force,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Wright said. “As schools implement these more challenging standards and state tests, I expect to see an improvement in the performance of Virginia middle and high school students on national reading assessments.”
Thirty-eight percent of Virginia eighth graders achieved proficient or advanced mathematics scores on the 2013 NAEP, compared with 40 percent in 2011. The two-point decline was not statistically noteworthy. Eighth graders in only five states — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Minnesota and Vermont — achieved higher average math scores. The National Center for Education Statistics described the increase in grade-8 mathematics achievement in Virginia since 2005 — when 33 percent earned proficient or advanced scores — as significant.
As his term as president of the Board of Education neared its end, Foster reflected on how far Virginia’s public schools have come under the SOL program and on the challenges that remain:
“In education as elsewhere, those who would make sound policy look at long-term trends and multiple measures. All of the trends and measures point in the same direction: SAT scores are up, ACT scores are up, NAEP scores are up, Advanced Placement scores are up, graduation rates are up, and minority achievement is up. Remarkably, Virginians are even competing favorably with Finland and three dozen other countries in math and science assessments.
“None of this has been easy, of course, nor will pursuing the road ahead to universal proficiency and the elimination of achievement gaps be easy. We still have a lot of hard work to do. But as President Kennedy famously said of the space race, ‘We do not do these things because they are easy; we do them because they are hard.’ Those who value the future of our young people, our Commonwealth, and our nation will not do the easy thing and abandon the SOL-based reforms that have taken us this far. They will stay the course until we have accomplished even harder things.”