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Academic achievement among Virginia students continues to be impacted by the residue of COVID lockdowns, and achievement gaps that long pre-date the pandemic are still in evidence, state officials said in releasing results from Standards of Learning exams and other state-mandated assessments taken by students during the 2021-22 school year.

“In-person instruction matters,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who said Virginia’s public-education system has embarked on a “multi-year recovery effort” to get beyond the losses felt by school lockdowns during the early part of the pandemic.

Data released Aug. 18 show that despite one-year gains in most subjects, student achievement in all areas remained well below pre-pandemic levels.

Balow and other officials who have come in since the start of the Youngkin administration promised ramped-up efforts to address the situation.

“The first step in addressing the learning loss our students have experienced is to dive into the SOL data at the state, division and school levels and identify the instructional supports and interventions students require,” Balow said in a statement. “This is especially critical for our youngest learners, who have spent more than a third of their early-elementary years without the benefit of in-person instruction.”

Youngkin made the state of public education a major theme of his campaign against Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2021, and the swing of education-focused voters to Youngkin may have helped fuel his narrow victory.

The current heads of state education policy criticized the adoption of less-rigorous proficiency standards adopted by the Virginia Board of Education for the 2020-21 school year, saying the resulting scores only served to understate the pandemic’s impact on student achievement that already was teetering before the pandemic arrived.

“The prolonged closure of schools exacerbated downward trends in achievement that began several years before COVID, and our efforts to address learning loss must go beyond making up for lost seat time,” Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said. “Moving forward, we must restore a culture of high expectations for every child in every school.”

While the pandemic can be blamed for many education-related shortcomings of the past two years, it wasn’t responsible for the achievement gap in test scores that continues to result in students from different demographic groups seeing widely different success rates on SOLs and other tests. Passage rates often vary by 20 to 30 percentage points, depending on the groups being compared.

This fall, the Virginia Department of Education will introduce individualized progress reports for students in grades 1-8 that will allow parents to see where their children are succeeding and where they have fallen behind. The department will pilot the progress reports in selected school districts, with the intention of rolling the effort out statewide.

State education officials in September will release 2022-23 school-accreditation ratings, following two school years in which they were waived by the Northam administration due to the pandemic. Accreditation factors include multiple indicators of school quality and student achievement, including growth in reading and mathematics and rates of high-school graduation.

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