By Stefanie Jackson – The COVID-19 pandemic created large learning gaps for public-school students on the Eastern Shore, results from state standardized tests show.
However, school systems in Accomack and Northampton counties are moving forward with plans to improve their scores on the Standards of Learning, or SOL, tests.
Sandy Drummond, Accomack schools director of accountability and assessment, relayed a quote from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow that “despite one-year gains in most subjects, student achievement remained well below pre-pandemic levels.”
When 2022 SOL test scores are compared to scores from 2021, “when the majority of our students were learning remotely or following hybrid schedules, we can see the difference our teachers made,” Balow said.
Drummond said three of 11 Accomack schools — Accawmacke Elementary School, Metompkin Elementary School, and Nandua Middle School — were listed as “at or above” standard in all nine of the Virginia Department of Education’s school quality indicators, which measured everything from academic proficiency to absentee rates.
Across all five Accomack elementary schools, which are Accawmacke, Chincoteague, Kegotank, Metompkin, and Pungoteague, the 2022 SOL passing rates for reading ranged from a low of 53% to a high of 67%.
The SOL passing rates for all other core subjects at the elementary schools ranged from 37% to 66% in math, 30% to 72% in history, and 41% to 72% in science.
Arcadia, Chincoteague, and Nandua middle school students had varying degrees of success on the SOL tests, with the passing rates for eighth graders ranging from 70% to 79% in reading, 50% to 76% in writing, 43% to 89% in math, and 55% to 81% in science.
The passing rates of Arcadia, Chincoteague, and Nandua high school students who took the SOL tests ranged from 75% to 87% in English 11 reading, 64% to 74% in English 11 writing, 79% to 83% in algebra I, and 54% to 85% in biology.
SOL passing rates for Tangier Combined School were not included in the report because the number of students who were tested was so small that individual students could be identified by their scores.
Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Hall said each Accomack school is working on an improvement plan to increase student performance.
Accomack schools also will provide extra after-school tutoring this year for students who need help catching up.
Superintendent Chris Holland added that Accomack’s summer school program has been enhanced to aid the recovery of student learning losses.
Northampton schools Superintendent Jaime Cole compared SOL test results from 2016 to 2022.
The data does not follow one consistent pattern across all grades and subjects, but in general, student performance stayed at about the same levels in 2016 and 2017 and had made a slight drop by 2019.
The most dramatic drops in student performance occurred in 2021 and 2022 as in-person learning was phased back in for most students. (SOL tests were not administered in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so no data is available for that year.)
For example, Occohannock Elementary School’s third-grade reading test pass rate was 84% in 2016, 71% in 2019, and 59% in 2021.
Similarly, Kiptopeke Elementary School’s third grade reading test pass rate was 67% in 2016 and hit a low of 54% in 2021.
Cole said one strategy that will be implemented to improve reading performance is using leveled readers, which has proven effective in the past.
These are books that are organized by their complexity, from books with short and simple sentences to books with longer, more varied sentence structures.
This means when teachers present reading lessons, they will spend only about 10 or 15 minutes on whole group instruction and then move on to small groups, with each group using books appropriate to the students’ reading levels.
The small groups of three to five students would rotate through different learning stations.
“This is the perfect opportunity to get volunteers from the community,” said Cole, who suggested the learning stations could include one at the computer and one each with a teacher, instructional assistant (in grades K to 2), and a volunteer.
Student performance on the math SOLs followed a similar trend.
For example, Occohannock Elementary’s third-grade math test pass rate was 74% in 2016, decreased to 63% in 2019, and hit a low of 34% in 2022.
Kiptopeke Elementary’s third grade math test pass rates bucked the trend, rising from 59% in 2016 to 77% in 2019, then plummeting to 29% in 2021 and beginning to recover in 2022, reaching 46%.
Cole explained that not all of the SOL score increases and decreases were related to the COVID-19 pandemic – some were due to changes in the curriculum or use of differing pacing guides.
SOL pass rates also were affected by fluctuations in the number of students taking the tests. In 2021, letters were sent home to parents notifying them that students were not required to take the SOLs that year, and many opted out.
The same notification was not made this year, but parents still could send in letters permitting their children to opt out of the SOL tests, so not all students participated.
But Cole is confident that division-wide consistency with curriculums and pacing guides, along with new instructional strategies modeled by reading and math coaches, will soon pay off.
“I know … it’s a little bit scary right now,” but, “I think we’re going to see great gains,” she said.