Virginia’s student literacy scores have fallen to levels not seen in more than 15 years.

New data from the federal government released this week shows that reading scores have dropped substantially in elementary and middle schools. The results of the test nicknamed the “nation’s report card” confirm a problem that state testing has signaled for the past few years.

The scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, highlight a consistent drop in the performance on the state’s own reading tests and reveal that by eighth grade, two-thirds of Virginia students aren’t proficient readers.

State education leaders — who aren’t sure why the scores have dropped so much — are calling for $36 million to go toward new reading specialists. An Oct. 18 letter from Virginia’s K-12 education chief tells school districts to focus more on teaching students the basics of reading and writing.

“The latest NAEP results — coupled with the declines we have seen during the last several years on our state reading tests — underscore the importance of the efforts already underway at the state and local levels to strengthen reading instruction for all students,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said.

Fewer than 2 in 5, or 40%, of fourth-grade students in the state are meeting the benchmark for what’s considered proficient in reading — a slightly higher bar than reading on grade level — down from 43% in 2017. In eighth grade, just 1 in 3, or 33%, of students are proficient, compared to 37% in 2017.

In fourth-grade reading, Virginia students posted an average score of 224, a 4-point drop compared with 2017, the last year the test was administered. The tests are scored on a 0-500 scale. The last time Virginia students fared that poorly on the test was 2003, when the average score was 223.

It was worse for middle schoolers.

Eighth-grade students in Virginia had a 262 average score on the reading test, a mark in line with the national average. This is the first time since 1992 — the furthest back that NAEP data is available — that Virginia eighth-graders haven’t exceeded the national average on the test. It’s also the worst average score recorded in the state since Virginia students started taking the test.

“We should all be concerned, parents and educators alike,” said Thomas Toch, the founding director of FutureEd, a think tank inside Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “These foundational skills are critical to academic success and ultimately success in the workplace. The stakes are high. We need to keep working at this.”

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Through the national assessment, states can compare themselves with one another or to the national average. It’s the largest snapshot of what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects.

Virginia’s struggles aren’t unique.

The average fourth-grade score nationally is down 1 point compared to 2017, while eighth-grade reading scores slid 3 points. Only one state — Mississippi — saw statistically significant increases in fourth-grade reading this year.

“The results are, frankly, devastating,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “This country is in a student achievement crisis.”

The NAEP test was first administered in 1969 to measure students’ abilities in math and reading. Virginia first participated in NAEP state-by-state testing in 1990. Scores of the test, administered every two years to a representative sampling of students — have been fairly stagnant over the past 10 years.

Roughly 4,600 Virginia fourth-grade students took the test along with about 4,300 eighth-graders. The results are not reported for specific school districts or schools. Unlike in Virginia, 27 of the country’s largest school districts, such as New York City and Los Angeles, require all students to take the NAEP test.

Virginia is among 17 states or jurisdictions where fourth-grade reading scores fell and 31 that saw lower eighth-grade scores.

“Eighth grade is a transitional point in preparing students for success in high school, so it is critical that researchers further explore the declines we are seeing here, especially the larger, more widespread declines that we are seeing in reading,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test.

The new data comes as state and local officials grapple with diminishing performance on the state’s own reading tests.

Virginia’s annual release of state test results in August showed that more than 1 in 4 students in the state aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade, a test seen by experts and research as an important predictor of students’ future academic success. Those scores have been on the decline for three straight years.

Fourth-grade reading scores have dropped two consecutive years, down to 75% this year compared to 79% in 2016-17. Performance in eighth grade has fluctuated in the past five years, but fell this year to 76% of students passing the state test compared to 77% last year.

“We’ve been so focused on teaching to the test and getting them ready for the test that sometimes we forget what the bigger picture is, which is for them to love to read and want to read,” said Virginia Commonwealth University teaching and learning professor Valerie Robnolt.

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Why scores are on the decline is the million-dollar question.

Virginia is implementing new learning standards for reading and writing. Schools receive less money — when adjusted for inflation — than they did before the Great Recession. The numbers of English-learning students in the state and those from low-income families have drastically increased in the past 10 years.

“These latest national assessment results make it clear that, given the significant changes that have occurred in our schools over the last decade, we must do more to support young learners who are struggling to attain grade-level proficiency in reading,” Lane said.

An Oct. 18 memo from Lane to school superintendents across the state urged them to put a renewed focus on literacy, specifically recommending more reading time for students.

“As the school year continues, school divisions are encouraged to provide students with daily opportunities to read,” Lane wrote. “While it is important to meet each child where he or she is instructionally, all students need opportunities to read grade-level text daily, including nonfiction and fiction pieces.”

He added that the Education Department will be looking at schools and districts that didn’t see drops in reading performance to potentially replicate what they are doing elsewhere.

As the number of students who need more resources goes up, studies and experts say education spending hasn’t kept pace.

State spending per student is down 8% compared with the 2008-09 school year, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based research organization. An average of $5,749 is spent on every student by the state, compared with $6,225 in the 2008-09 school year, after adjusting for inflation.

The Commonwealth Institute also found that there are 2,329 fewer support staff members — positions such as social workers, custodians and psychologists — in Virginia schools compared with 2008-09.

A proposal approved by the Virginia Board of Education in October calls for more support staff positions and more reading specialists to help schools with a low percentage of students passing the state’s third-grade reading test.

The latest NAEP scores highlight the need for more reading specialists, Robnolt said.

“We need to have the highest-qualified people providing the intervention in kindergarten and first grade,” she said. “We know a lot from research on what’s supposed to be happening. It’s just a matter of making sure teachers first know how to provide that instruction and giving them the support to teach it.”

The reading specialists proposal makes up $36.6 million of a funding package that calls for $950 million more for schools every year. While the state’s public education governing board has recommended that increase in education spending, it’s up to the General Assembly to fund it.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said it will consider the Board of Education’s changes, including the recommendation for more reading specialists, in its creation of the state budget.

“Reading is the foundation of all educational success, and it’s absolutely clear we must do more to support our students struggling to read,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement Wednesday.

Parker Slaybaugh, the spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said improving test scores “starts with paying teachers more and giving localities more flexibility.”

“We will raise teacher pay to the national average and protect lottery funding for schools, so each and every school system can meet their own unique challenges,” he said. “Top down, bureaucratic efforts with one-size-fits-all policies aren’t the answer.”

Despite a 5% raise for teachers last year, Virginia’s average teacher pay is about $8,000 below the national average.

Cox, a retired teacher, is running for re-election next week in a year in which every seat in the General Assembly is on the ballot.

The state budget is set to be unveiled next month in advance of the General Assembly session that starts in January.

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jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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