The human toll of the Great Recession still is visible in Virginia’s schools, according to a new report by the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation.
The VECF’s biennial School Readiness Report Card warns that the higher rates of poverty during the recession years may have contributed to a “genuine decline in the literacy skills of Virginia 5-year-olds” and slowed progress toward closing racial and income-based achievement gaps.
“The front edge of a multiyear wave with high numbers of children in prolonged poverty has reached school age,” the report reads. “Young children with prolonged exposure to poverty are more likely to start school already behind and to struggle in their early school years.”
Statewide failure rates for Standards of Learning exams in third-grade math and reading have increased slightly in three consecutive school years. The failure rate for the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, or PALS, test for kindergarten also has increased, reaching 16 percent during the 2017-18 school year.
Kathy Glazer, VECF president, said the organization has long anticipated that the recession could have such an impact.
“We are sorry to see that what we feared has come true,” Glazer said. “Some of the gains that we were starting to see are starting to erode. … Disparities continue, and we are not seeing any significant change.”
In 2018, the performance of economically disadvantaged third-graders on the reading SOL test trailed that of their wealthier peers by more than 21 percentage points. Census data for 2016 show that the estimated poverty rates for black and Hispanic children more than tripled the rates for white children.
More than 40 percent of Virginia’s black and Hispanic third-graders failed the SOL reading test in 2018, while about 20 percent of white students failed the test.
The failure rate for Hispanic third-graders has increased by 10 percentage points since the last School Readiness Report Card was released in 2016. Glazer said the data highlight the need for services to support Virginia’s growing population of Hispanic students and families who are recent immigrants.
“It’s a reality that we need to prepare for,” Glazer said. “Communities are recognizing the benefits and opportunities to support dual-language learning. … It could be a rich asset for communities if we position ourselves well.”
The 2018 Report Card specified two major shortcomings in Virginia’s school readiness efforts: limited data and analytic systems and a lack of a cohesive statewide framework for public and private early childhood services.
“The state does not collect consistent, usable data about children’s healthy development between birth and kindergarten,” Glazer said. “We have little evidence and information to show if the services children are receiving are driving the kinds of outcomes that we want. … We are shooting in the dark, in some ways.”
The VECF has mapped out some local data for early childhood risk factors on
The VECF data tool shows that the portion of Albemarle County kindergarteners needing literacy intervention increased from 11.2 percent in the 2011-12 academic year to 16.3 percent in 2015-16. Charlottesville also saw an increase in that same period, from 11 percent to 14.2 percent.
In Albemarle, 58 percent of Hispanic third-graders and 56 percent of black third-graders failed the reading SOL test in 2017-18. In Charlottesville, 62 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students failed the test.
The VECF is assisting its community partners, including the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area, to advance new data collection initiatives. The local United Way’s Children’s Data Consortium will enable a longitudinal study of children in Albemarle and Charlottesville preschool programs.
The VECF also is working with Virginia’s business community, state legislators and Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration to draft an Early Childhood Success Act outlining a comprehensive business plan for early childhood services.
“We need to make sure we are providing services and information to follow children through their development, and make sure the state and communities are providing families with pathways to success,” Glazer said.

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.