Youngkin calls new reading and math test scores 'catastrophic'

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration says new test scores are “catastrophic” and “devastating.” 

In a press conference on Monday, Gov. Youngkin blamed decisions made under previous Democratic administrations and laid out a plan of action. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “Nation’s Report Card,” is considered a gold standard for comparing student performance in each state. The benchmark, which measures a sample of fourth and eighth graders, is generally published every two years. These are the first scores out since the coronavirus pandemic started. 

“Today’s data release is a clear and heart-wrenching statement that Virginia is failing her students,” Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera said. 

In an interview on Monday, State Superintendent Jillian Balow said her biggest concern is the decline in fourth-grade reading. She said Virginia’s scores fell to the national average after decades of outperforming other states. She said 32 percent of fourth graders were proficient or better in reading in 2022, compared to 43 percent in 2017. 

“Fourth Grade reading stands out as not just devastating, but also as a marker for us to take action. We had the steepest declines in the nation and wiped out over 20 years of progress,” Balow said. 

Source: State Superintendent Jillian Balow

Balow said Virginia was tied with Maryland for the largest decline in fourth-grade math since 2017, though the commonwealth remained just above the national average in 2022. She said drops in reading and math scores for eighth graders since 2017 were also concerning.

Youngkin largely blamed actions taken by the State Board of Education under previous Democratic administrations for the drop in performance. Youngkin accused the board of masking failures by lowering expectations for students and schools. He called for an overhaul of state testing and accreditation standards. 

“The underpinnings to this catastrophic performance were decisions that were made long before we had ever heard of COVID-19,” Youngkin said. “In the business world, if this was your report card, there would be an immediate change in management. You would get fired and I think that is exactly what voters did last November.” 

Former Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, who served under former Governor Ralph Northam, said in an interview on Monday that changes to school accreditation standards were intended to look beyond overall scores and measure growth, particularly among disadvantaged demographic groups. 

“That’s not lowering standards. That’s actually improving standards,” Qarni said.

Qarni said the drop in test scores reflects a nationwide trend of learning loss, an unfortunate symptom of pandemic school closures that prioritized safety. He accused Youngkin of misleading the public for political gain. 

“It’s this manufacturing of lies. This governor has weaponized education and attacked our children, our teachers and our families,” Qarni said. “It is dishonest and it’s bad for Virginia.”

In a joint statement on Monday evening, Senate Democrats criticized Youngkin and called on the Governor to match his rhetoric with additional money for public schools.

“We have staffing shortages in schools across Virginia, students aren’t receiving the proper resources to set every child up for success, and many schools need funding for structural improvements to increase the quality of education. Now is not the time to point fingers at those who are no longer in leadership,” said Senator Louise Lucas, who chairs the Senate Education and Health Committee. 

Asked on Monday if he plans to include additional funding in his upcoming budget proposal, Youngkin said there is already a lot of money in the system, citing federal coronavirus relief funding and new investments in the recently approved state spending plan. 

“The issue here is not funding. The issue here is an understanding that when you water down expectations…you get worse outcomes. It is a myth to think that we don’t have enough funding to deliver great outcomes for our children,” Youngkin said. 

Youngkin laid out seven steps that he plans to take in response to these test scores. One of them includes challenging localities to spend the remaining COVID-19 relief funding to help fix the problem.

Youngkin said his administration will provide emergency support for students using $30 million in learning recovery grants and expanded tutoring partnerships. He said they will also continue to “strengthen the pipeline of high-quality teachers,” though he has not specifically committed to additional raises beyond what was approved earlier this year. 

Youngkin is also directing the Board of Education to raise SOL cut scores and improve the transparency of the state accreditation system.

Balow said that will happen “in a matter of months,” rather than years.

“We are fast-tracking the fast track,” Balow said.

The Virginia School Boards Association also responded in a statement on Monday evening.

“These scores highlight the call-to-action that our school divisions have already been proactive in responding to,” said VSBA Executive Director Gina Patterson. “The learning loss experienced due to the pandemic will take time to recover from, so having this type of supplemental data is a great benefit to school leaders as they fine-tune their plans to address specific student needs. The VSBA will continue to offer guidance for school boards to advocate for resources and supports that will assist them in regaining momentum in their academic acceleration.”