RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Statewide data on standardized test results released by the Virginia Department of Education paint a grim picture of learning loss in Richmond, with scores continuing to decline despite recovery in most neighboring counties.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new playground at Henry L. Marsh III Elementary, Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras downplayed the results, saying they reflected a statewide trend.

“If you look at the SOLs across the state of Virginia, they’re down,” he said. “What we’re seeing is the impact of the pandemic.”

By the Numbers

But that’s only partially true. While almost all schools statewide are still seeing average pass rates below pre-pandemic levels, most also saw a post-pandemic recovery.

Richmond is an outlier, both statewide and locally. (Testing was cancelled in the 2019-2020 school year)

Richmond’s scores have only continued to slide, with average pass rates in the school division dropping another ten points since testing returned in 20-21.

“This is what failure looks like,” wrote School Board Member Jonathan young in a statement. “But to be clear this is failure by adults, not students.”

Overall, schools in Virginia saw a recovery of 5.7% from their post-pandemic low, for a net loss in pass rate of 12.3% compared to pre-pandemic testing. By contrast, Richmond’s pass rates have declined by 18.4% – in a school district that was already under-performing the state average.

Still, Kamras said there were some reasons for optimism, especially in early childhood reading, where the school division bucked its downward trend.

“Our number one focus continues to be literacy, focusing on getting all of our kids – particular the young ones, K, 1st, 2nd, 3rd – reading on grade level,” Kamras said. “We used most of our federal stimulus funds to invest in reading specialists, reading coaches, training – and we’re already beginning to see the impact of that.”

3rd Grade reading pass rates – an indicator of childhood literacy – recovered sharply, but not for all students.

The impact of those interventions is reflected in the data. Richmond saw a strong recovery in 3rd grade reading SOL pass rates, which can be an indicator for childhood literacy.

“In reading, the only two RPS subgroups that had larger declines than the state were Hispanic students and English Learner students,” Matthew Stanley, a spokesperson for the school division, wrote.

While on average pass rates in 3rd grade reading dropped just 6% – about in line with statewide numbers – the recovery wasn’t universal. Both Black and white students had robust recoveries, with white students actually passing at a higher rate in 21-22 than they had pre-pandemic.

Meanwhile, Hispanic students, who are disproportionately ESL (English as a Second Language) learners, only saw their learning gap widen, with a net loss of 12% in the pass rate compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

Sore Subjects

The pattern of learning loss also differed greatly across subjects. The biggest and most persistent losses were seen in Science, writing and history, while reading and mathematics saw modest recoveries from post-pandemic lows.

Different subject showed different patterns in the post-pandemic learning environment.

One possible explanation for the disparity lies in differences in the way tests were administered.

In 20-21, localities were allowed to substitute an alternative local assessment for writing and history – the two subjects that saw an improvement followed by a sharp drop – instead of administering the state SOL.

“When we look at the writing scores for 2020-2021, it does not represent all grade 8 students, because there were a number of school divisions who chose to administer that local alternative,” a VDOE official said. The same caveat also applied to history assessments.

VDOE officials also noted that persistent declines in science could be attributed to the “cumulative nature” of the tests, which cover content taught across mutliple grade levels.

“Student performance may have been impacted to a greater degree by the pandemic-related interruptions than tests that cover content taught in a single year,” they wrote.

Representatives of the Richmond school division declined to comment on specific questions 8News asked about the data, saying Kamras would address the results at a board meeting on September 12.

Blame it Online

In a scathing statement following the release of the results, School Board Member Jonathan Young placed the blame squarely on online learning.

“I voted not once, not twice, but three times to resume in-person instruction,” Young said. “But instead RPS locked the schoolhouse doors for a year and a half.”

His criticism puts him in agreement with the Youngkin administration, which claimed that state data showed schools that relied on online learning performed worse across the state.

It also puts him in agreement with Kamras himself, who said that despite the apparent negative effects of online learning, there was reason to believe the return to in-person learning last year was already helping students improve.

“Nothing replaces in-person learning,” he said. “So, what I’m most excited about is if you look at our Fall scores and our Spring scores, we had huge growth, so we’re headed in the right direction.”

A school spokesperson told 8News that between the Fall and Spring, reading saw an increase of 12% and math saw an increase of 27%.

The state did not provide VGA data, so 8News could not cross-reference with other subjects.