Essay Will the Virginia Governor’s Push for Higher Expectations on State Tests Affect Student Learning?
An Essay for the Learning Curve
Matthew Chingos
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National and state standardized tests can provide policymakers and parents with insight into students’ academic success and growth, but what happens when state and national tests send conflicting signals? Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin and his administration want to increase the score students need to pass the state tests by enough to close the “honesty gap” between the number of students who pass the state test and the number who pass the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The Youngkin administration and Virginia education officials argue that closing the honesty gap is necessary to “provide quality information about student achievement and growth.” But that information might not improve outcomes. Analyzing data from 32 states that raised expectations on their tests over the past decade suggests closing the honesty gap has little effect on students’ performance.

Key Findings

Measuring the difference between the share of students scoring proficient on state tests and the share scoring proficient on the NAEP between 2009–10 and 2018–19, the data show the following:

  • Virginia had the second-largest honesty gap in 2018–19. Seventy-nine percent of Virginia students scored proficient on the state tests compared with 39 percent on the NAEP, a difference of 40 percentage points; only Louisiana had a larger gap (42 percentage points). DC and 35 states had gaps smaller than 15 percentage points, though very few states had completely closed their gaps.
  • Proficiency rates on the NAEP remained largely flat in the 32 states (including DC) that adopted new tests that were harder to pass. The average proficiency rate in fourth-grade math among states that raised expectations was 40 percent the year before the policy change and was 39 to 40 percent in the five years that followed.


Governor Youngkin has called for the state Board of Education to raise Virginia’s expectations for students and has called for Virginia to make major changes to its accreditation and accountability policies and revamp its curricular standards over the next few years. But these data indicate that the many states that made big changes to their state testing systems—largely by introducing new tests that are harder to pass—did not see improvements in NAEP performance in the years that followed.

These data show that even though there may be other justifications for setting higher passing scores on Virginia’s existing tests, state policymakers should not expect higher passing scores alone to advance student learning. Additionally, making this change as soon as this year may be confusing to educators and policymakers, given that further changes to testing and accountability are planned for future years.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags K-12 education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
States Virginia
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