Craig Stiltner. Courtesy of Stiltner.
Craig Stiltner. Courtesy of Stiltner.

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In light of a scathing report showing that Virginia students have been underperforming in recent years, a Buchanan County supervisor is proposing to allow K-12 students who have fallen behind during the COVID-19 pandemic an optional make-up year to improve their academic test scores and athletic performance. 

“I’ve been involved in coaching kids for 40 years, and I hate to see kids fall behind. It’s hard to make up for an entire year lost during virtual learning,” Craig Stiltner, who has represented the county’s Rock Lick district since 2012 following a four-year stint on the school board, told Cardinal News. 

Stiltner, whose daughter is a teacher, who witnessed the struggles of her students firsthand, proposes a waiver created by the Department of Education. “My daughter told me how hard it was to teach the children via Zoom, and I think this waiver would be an easy fix,” he said.

Released last month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress report, also known as NAEP and sometimes dubbed the “Nation’s Report Card,” highlights the severe learning loss endured by American children since the pandemic. It saw the largest decrease in math test scores since the exam was administered, and reading scores dropped to 1992 levels. 

Virginia State Superintendent Jillian Balow said that the commonwealth saw the most severe drop in reading test scores in the entire country, with only 32% of Virginia’s fourth graders performing proficiently in reading, compared to 43% in 2017.

“More than 20 years of gains have been completely wiped out,” Balow said in a statement last month. “And this massive learning loss cannot be blamed solely on the pandemic because more than half of this learning loss happened before anyone even heard of COVID-19.”

Stiltner pitched his proposal to state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, who set up a three-way phone call with Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera earlier this month. 

“I think that this is definitely worth exploring, and parents and children – graduates especially – if they feel like they truly lost a year or are not as prepared as they think they should have been, they should have the option to stay another year,” Hackworth said, adding that while he doesn’t believe that a lot of parents and students would exercise this option, the state should make it available for those who would benefit from it.

“Secretary Guidera said that they need to see what the cost would be, and where we would get that money. But we are sitting on a budget surplus, and Governor (Glenn) Youngkin is very focused on education, so I think we can find that money,” Hackworth said.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter did not comment on the specifics of Stiltner’s proposal, but she said in an email that administration officials regularly discuss proposals for the commonwealth with legislators. 

“Recovering learning loss is a top priority for the governor and he has immediately worked to address that through transformational tutoring partnerships, the Bridging the Gap Initiative, supporting teacher retention and recruitment efforts, and calling on local school boards to put their COVID-19 funds toward learning loss,” Porter said.

Bristol City Schools Superintendent Keith Perrigan, who also serves as president of Virginia’s Coalition of Small and Rural Schools and as a member of the newly formed Commission on School Construction and Modernization, called Stiltner’s proposal “an interesting idea” that is worth looking at. 

“But we also know that if children get behind age wise, they end up dropping out later, so it’s important to look at each case individually,” Perrigan said. “From a superintendent’s point of view, keeping students enrolled is always worth considering. But it would also be important to look at it from the staffing side. I’d like to learn more about this proposal.”

Virginia wouldn’t be the first state to consider a make-up year in light of falling test scores following the pandemic, Perrigan said. In Kentucky, a new state law that went into effect last year allows all public school students to ask for a “do-over” year to retake or supplement classes interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and school closures. High school students also get a fifth year of athletic eligibility.

Stiltner hopes that the Youngkin administration will consider his idea. “This should be in my mind a frontline item right now, everyday you wait is time lost,” he said. “The money is there through the COVID relief fund. They are just sitting on it, but money shouldn’t be an issue anyway, because what kind of price do you put on a kid’s education?”

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.