RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Glenn Youngkin says a new report paints a sobering picture of the state of education in Virginia and demonstrates an urgent need for change. 

The report was directed by Gov. Youngkin’s first executive order, which also advocated for the removal of “divisive concepts” from the classroom, including critical race theory. It outlines trends, commits to priorities and makes recommendations for improvement.

“We must change direction. We are not serving all of Virginia’s children and we must,” Youngkin said during a press conference on Thursday. “We cannot know where we’re going unless we know where we’re starting and where we’re starting is not where we thought we were.” 

According to Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, the report lays out data points that show state policy decisions and a lack of transparency have downplayed troubling trends. 

“It is noteworthy that the rhetorical emphasis on equity coincided with the widened gaps in student achievement. And now, decisions at the state level must correct those errors and reverse these disturbing trends,” Balow wrote in the report. 

The report says these trends were exacerbated by, but did not start during the coronavirus pandemic. It specifically points to changes made by the State Board of Education serving under Democratic administrations on how schools are accredited and tests are scored. 

“Leaders changed definitions, they lowered expectations and they reduced the importance of proficiency in determining school quality and accreditation,” said Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera.

Guidera highlighted disparities in national and state test results measuring student reading proficiency, which she referred to as the “honesty gap.” She said Virginia has maintained these differences, even as other states take steps to align their standards with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

According to the report, reading standards of learning (SOL) test scores in grades three through eight declined every year from 2017 and 2019 in Virginia.

The report says, in 2019, only 38% of the state’s fourth graders and 33% of eighth graders were proficient in reading on NAEP. That same year, 75% of fourth graders and 76% of eighth graders were considered proficient on the state’s SOL test.

The report said the “honesty gap” is even larger for students of color. 

It also attributes “relatively high” SOL pass rates in mathematics in the 2018-2019 school year (82%) to lower proficiency standards that “masked several years of declining achievement.” 

Meanwhile, 45% of all Virginia public high school seniors in 2019, including 76% of Black and 56% of Hispanic students, were not college-ready in math on the SAT, according to the report. 

“Having the lowest benchmarks in the nation is not acceptable and that’s where Virginia is,” Balow said. 

Additionally, Balow’s report spotlighted “disturbing trends” in kindergarten, college and career readiness. Balow further highlighted a surge in homeschooling and transfers to private school triggered by the pandemic, as well as learning loss that she described as “worse than feared.” 

In an interview, Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) acknowledged there is a growing achievement gap that has not been adequately addressed. However, she disagrees that low expectations and the previous administration’s focus on equity is driving the problem. 

“The Governor is confusing the symptom with the underlying cause and the test scores have been all over the map for a while. The changes by the Board of Education were designed to make sure we were meeting every student where they are,” McClellan said. “What we really need to do is fully fund our education system.”

Budget negotiations are currently ongoing. The spending plan crafted by Senate Democrats has more funding for K-12 education than the budget proposed by House Republicans and backed by Youngkin. 

Senate Democratic leadership also responded with a joint statement on Thursday evening. 

“To accuse Virginia’s education system of failure is an outright lie, supported by cherry-picked data and warped perspective,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke called the report “a joke designed to undermine and criticize the Board of Education, public school administrators, and teachers.” 

Senate Education & Health Committee Chair Louise Lucas said Youngkin’s effort to “erase any mention of equity” will reverse Virginia’s progress and “take us back to the days of Jim Crow.” 

You can read the full report below.