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Ed Talk: Where We Need to Focus Our Attention

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Virginia Department of Education has released the results of the 2020-21 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. It is no surprise that pass rates for Arlington Public Schools (APS) students have declined significantly and gaps in student achievement between different groups have increased. These test results are consistent with trends in Virginia and nationwide.

In a recent APS press release, Superintendent Francisco Duran stated that the results show “where we need to focus our attention.”

In Arlington, English learners had the lowest pass rates on the recent subject area tests in English, math and science and some of the largest declines in scores compared with the last SOL test administration in 2018-19. White students had the highest pass rate of all student groups on these tests and had the smallest decline in scores.

Test results for other groups of students are cause for concern as well. 2020-21 math pass rates are: 35 percent for students with disabilities, 36 percent for economically disadvantaged students, 38 percent for Hispanic students and 46 percent for Black students, compared with 82 percent for white students.

For English, the pass rates were a bit better, but large gaps persist: students with disabilities — 47 percent, economically disadvantaged students — 51 percent, Hispanic students — 53 percent and Black students — 61 percent, compared with 91 percent for white students.

The fact that APS returned to in-person learning this week will be a significant factor in improving student achievement for all students.

Addressing the learning loss that has occurred during the pandemic is a daunting task. Dr. Duran has stated that accelerated learning and support will be a focus this year, which he has described as teaching current grade level material while reinforcing skills and concepts from the previous level.

As APS works to improve student achievement and close gaps, it should be transparent and focus its attention on:

Data

The APS press release about the SOL results cited one increase in a test result and did not include any data about gaps in student achievement or significant declines in scores. And in last week’s School Board meeting, SOL results presented did not compare data of different student groups with white students, the group with the highest pass rates on the 2020-21 SOL subject area tests.

American Rescue Plan Act Funds

APS expects to receive nearly $19 million from the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief III Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan Act. These funds are intended to help school divisions address learning loss that occurred during the pandemic.

A summary of how these funds will be spent is posted on the APS website. It is expected that the initial estimate of more than $10 million and 111.50 full-time employees for the Virtual Learning Program, which as of July 12 had 891 students enrolled, will be reduced. APS should make clear how funding will be reallocated to support in-person learning.

Enrollment

The School Board’s approved budget for this school year is based on an enrollment of 29,108 students. This is significantly higher than the pre-pandemic September 2019 enrollment of 28,020 students and the September 2020 enrollment of 26,895 students. If the fall 2021 enrollment does not meet projections, APS will need to lay out its plan to reallocate teachers to improve student learning and reduce gaps.

The Superintendent is right to conclude that the 2020-21 SOL test results show where we need to focus our attention. In the coming months, APS should make clear how it is allocating resources to improve student learning and reduce gaps.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with Project Peace, the Community Progress Network, and Second Chance.

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