Only 18 school divisions in Virginia maintained or increased their pass rate for at least one of the five SOL subject areas tested, compared to before the pandemic. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

State testing scores released this week paint a grim picture of post-pandemic academic achievement in Virginia public schools.

Across Virginia this year, only 18 school divisions out of 132 across the state maintained or increased their Standards of Learning pass rate for at least one of the five subject areas, compared to before the pandemic. 

The 2018-19 school year was the last year SOL tests were administered before the pandemic forced sweeping changes to teaching methods for several years. 

A news release from the Virginia Department of Education called declines in reading and math scores for elementary and middle-schoolers “alarming.”  

SOL results released this week show that this year’s statewide average pass rates for tests in reading, writing, history, math and science ranged between 65% and 73%. 

In 2018-19, the pass rate for each ranged between 75% and 82%.

“Grade 3 through 8 Virginia students are still struggling to recover the learning loss from the pandemic and are not performing as well as their pre-pandemic peers,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons said in a statement. 

This year, 18 school divisions out of 132 across the state maintained or increased their Standards of Learning pass rate for at least one of the five subject areas, compared to before the pandemic. 

The tests, given at various points in grades three through eight and during high school, are used to evaluate whether students are meeting the state’s instruction requirements. In 2019, the cutoff score for determining math proficiency was lowered, with a similar change made for reading in 2020. The state education board made the change based on recommendations from subject experts.

Lowering those thresholds, the state press release noted, means that now some students are passing SOL tests when they wouldn’t have a few years ago.

Some Southwest Virginia school divisions see modest gains

Several school divisions in Southwest and Southside Virginia saw pass rate increases in at least one subject area compared to before the pandemic.

Lexington saw modest pass rate increases in four of five subject areas this year over 2018-19. Overall, Lexington reported an especially high pass rate, in the 80% to 90% range, compared to the state pass rate for each subject, none of which surpassed 73% this year.

“There’s no doubt there’s been significant learning loss. COVID-19 sent some of our kids back. But we still have professionals here in the buildings who know the curriculum and content, and are able to deliver it to students,” said Mike Goforth, superintendent of Wise County Public Schools.

In Wise County, the English writing pass rate increased from 76.5% in 2018-19 to 81% this year. Although scores dropped in all other subjects versus before the pandemic, pass rates remain in the 80% range.

The division has been in the top 10 in the state for SOL scores for at least a decade, Goforth said. “Consistency in the classroom has been a big thing for us. We don’t have a lot of teacher turnover,” he said. “That’s a big part of it.” 

Goforth also said the division is “data driven,” using regular assessments throughout the year to identify subject areas that need remediation. 

In Patrick County, the pass rate for writing increased from 72% in 2019 to 80.5% this year. However, Patrick County saw a drop for the math pass rate, from 92% in 2019 to 81% this year. Drops in the three other subject areas were more modest, and the county’s pass rates far exceed the statewide rate this year. Patrick County had the seventh-highest SOL scores in the state last year.

Youngkin’s new plan to address learning loss focuses on literacy, attendance

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office placed the blame for lagging SOL scores in large part on school closures during the pandemic, and on Thursday he launched his “ALL IN VA” plan to promote recovery from COVID-19 learning loss. The plan focuses on boosting literacy in grades four through eight, providing high-dosage tutoring of three to five hours per week, and creating a resource guide to help school divisions increase attendance. 

The amendments to the two-year state budget passed earlier this week after a five-month delay include $418 million for schools to use to address learning loss.

The Virginia Education Association, the union representing public school teachers across the state, says the “ALL IN VA” plan is flawed. 

“While we agree that high-dosage tutoring and additional reading specialists are key to improving results … the major barrier isn’t a lack of awareness that these are effective approaches, but rather finding the staff to implement the programming,” a statement from the VEA said. “The governor offers no solution other than pointing to one-time money from the state budget and suggesting school divisions use it to implement these programs.”

Chronic absenteeism, defined as when a student misses 10% or more of instructional days during the school year, has nearly doubled since 2018, according to state data.  

Buena Vista City Schools is one division that admits chronic absenteeism is a challenge. 

In 2022-23, 26% of students in the division missed two or more instructional days per month, compared to 19.5% of students statewide.

Pandemic learning loss is evident in Buena Vista this year, with pass rates for four out of five subject areas dropping compared to before the pandemic. But the pass rate for English writing increased from 53% to 59%, a notable gain for the division. 

The school system has focused on pacing guides for teaching and aligning instruction to the standards of learning, explained Gennifer Miller, its assistant superintendent of instruction. 

“We went through every student individually to determine strengths and areas of improvement,” she said. While whole-group instruction has been tailored toward the standards, small group instruction has been geared toward meeting students at their academic level. “We’re filling in the gaps on an individual basis,” Miller said. “We give students every chance we can give them to succeed.”

Though the division has more work to be done, particularly with writing and English, Miller expressed pride in her students’ progress. “Different divisions have different struggles,” she said. “There’s always room for improvement.” 

View the full list of Virginia school division SOL pass rates for 2018-2019 and 2022-2023.

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at or 540-384-1313.