Reading scores for the Virginia Standards of Learning test dropped by double digits following the introduction of a new, more rigorous exam this past year, according to test results released Tuesday by the Virginia Department of Education.
Overall, 75 percent of students passed the grade-level reading test, compared with 89 percent the previous year. Declines in reading scores were more pronounced in elementary and middle school than in high school. On sixth- and seventh-grade tests, every school district in the state did worse than the previous year, a Washington Post analysis found.
“We are asking students to meet higher expectations so that when they graduate, they will be ready for college and the workforce,” Patricia I. Wright, superintendent of public instruction, said in a news release. “Raising standards is difficult, but well worth the effort.”
The drop in reading scores echoes a similar decline in math scores a year ago, after a tougher Virginia statewide math exam was introduced. The latest results show that math students saw modest improvement on the two-year-old test, with a 71 percent pass rate, up three points from the previous year.
Virginia’s new online standardized tests, which align with revised academic standards, represent a shift from emphasizing minimum skills children should have at specific grade levels to measuring higher-order thinking skills and knowledge. In addition to the new reading tests, more challenging writing and science tests were rolled out this past year. Scores for those subjects also dipped.
State academic tests are getting more difficult throughout the country. New exams are being developed by two consortia of states that have signed on to updated standards called the Common Core, which aims to create a more national view of K-12 education. Virginia is one of a few states that has not adopted Common Core, instead independently revising its learning standards to better meet the expectations of employers and colleges.
More difficult tests often bring lower scores, but the stakes have changed. Virginia was one of many states that received a federal waiver from some of the punitive aspects of the No Child Left Behind law and the expectation that all students should be proficient in grade level skills by the 2013-2014 school year. New testing benchmarks expect low-performing schools to cut their achievement gaps — the difference in academic performance by different races, ethnicities and economic classes — in half in six years.
The new tests also offer a fresh challenge for high-performing school districts in Northern Virginia, where perfect pass rates had become common on the state’s old tests.
Test performance in several Washington area districts continues to outpace state averages, but declines in reading scores were pervasive.
In Fairfax County, reading pass rates dropped from 95 to 82 percent on the eighth-grade test and from 89 to 79 percent on the third-grade test. The pass rate only dipped by three points — from 96 to 93 percent — for the high school end-of-course reading test required to graduate, though the “pass advanced” rate, indicating high-scoring students, dropped from 57 to 10 percent. At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the pass advanced rate dropped from 98 to 32 percent.
In Arlington County, reading pass rates dropped from 90 to 77 percent in eighth grade and 87 to 78 percent in third grade. Only 59 percent of eighth-grade students in Alexandria passed the new reading test, down from 85 percent the year before. The reading pass rate for third-
graders in Alexandria slid from 76 to 70 percent.
“This is the start of a new trend line with the advent of the new more rigorous assessment,” said Clinton Page, executive director of the department of accountability for Alexandria Public Schools. “Our hope moving forward is that we will realize similar gains in reading as we did with math going into the second year.”
Alexandria City Schools saw improvements in seven out of nine of its math assessments.
Most of Virginia’s 132 school divisions made improvements in math performance, particularly in the high school end-of-course tests that students must pass to earn their standard or advanced-studies diplomas. More than 100 school districts improved their passing rates in Algebra II, including 48 school districts that posted pass rates of 80 percent or higher.
David M. Foster, president of the Virginia Board of Education, said in a news release that the improving scores on these “challenging and innovative tests” shows that Virginia is “moving in the right direction.”
The Standards of Learning tests were conducted entirely online for the first time, following a decade of technology upgrades. The online tests include “technology enhanced items” that require students to use more critical-thinking skills and solve multi-step problems. Some questions have “hot spots” that embed answer options in a graphic or text and, unlike multiple choice questions, can require students to select more than one answer.
Education officials said they expect to see an increase in schools that are not eligible for full state accreditation when reports are released next month, because of the recent declines in scores.
“I hope parents will view these accreditation changes in the context of the state raising standards so that their children — regardless of where they live — will be better prepared for the challenges of postsecondary education and the realities of global competition,” Wright said.
Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.