The results of the 2011-12 Standards of Learning exams released by the Virginia Department of Education showed big drops in eight of the nine mathematics categories from the year before. Although the results are alarming, they were not a surprise. This marked the first year that Virginia started testing based on a tougher mathematics curriculum that was adopted in 2009. Patricia I. Wright, Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, said as much when she admitted that the state's education administrators expected the steep drop. She also pointed out that lower scores shouldn't be looked at as indicators of lower achievement. The tests themselves have merely gotten tougher.
The surprising finding was that Virginia's sixth-graders didn't follow the trend; they were the only cohort to perform well in the math exam. Overall, the the sixth graders' passing rate rose by 1% over last year, with some counties showing even bigger improvements. Students from Alexandria saw gains of 7% on sixth grade mathematics exams, while in those in Arlington improved by an astounding 16%. State officials credit the high scores to the fact that many schools considered 7th grade assessments to be exceptionally hard before, and therefore spent more time preparing sixth graders for the increased workload.
Still, the sixth grade result prove to be the only bright spot in the otherwise dismal breakdown.
The four largest school systems in central Virginia — those in the city of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico — kept to the state trend for the most part.
Chesterfield did slightly better, with improved scores in two of the math categories: sixth- and eighth-grade math. County educational leaders were confident enough in their overall performance that they declared their district fully accredited nearly two months before the state releases its accreditation ratings.
Chesterfield Superintendent Marcus J. Newsome said that the results gave his district something to celebrate. Even while the math performance tanked in most districts in the state, 75% of Chesterfield's schools surpassed the math requirement this year and the remainder passed the requirement using the three-year averaging option.
Richmond showed drops in all nine categories, including 6th grade. Furthermore, Richmond was the only district in Virginia that showed double-digit reductions in categories other than math. Only 69% of district's 8th-graders passed the reading portion of the exam compared to 79% pass rate the year before.
"We're not where we want to be," said Victoria Oakley, the chief academic officer for the city school system.
She said the drops weren't surprising — last year's eighth-grade class had struggled in reading the years before, too, and the students were receiving extra help — and that plans were in place to help students improve their performance across the board.