VGLA: Rest in Ignominy

NOTE: VDOE has scrubbed most of the VGLA materials from its Web site, breaking some of the links in my draft of this post.  As of the posting date, all the remaining links are good.  I have posted the 2017 VGLA Manual here as a partial remedy for this Orwellian information vacuum.

The Virginia Grade Level Alternative, aka the VGLA, “is an alternative assessment for the Standards of Learning (SOL) Reading tests in grades 3-8. The VGLA Reading assessment is available only to Limited English Proficient (LEP) students in grades 3-8 who meet the eligibility criteria” (emphasis in original).

More specifically: “LEP students who have attended school in the United States for less than 12 months may receive a one – time exemption for the SOL Reading test in grades 3 through 8.”

Prior to 2012 in math and 2013 in reading, the VGLA was locally graded and was widely abused as a mechanism to boost SOL scores.  Since then, VDOE (through a contractor) has audited some of the reading “collections of evidence” (ca. 20% of them, it seems) but the grading has remained local. 

The VDOE database can tell us about the performance of students in the VGLA and in the regular SOL tests.  Let’s start with the third grade reading tests.


The SOL scores dropped statewide in 2013 with the advent of the new, tougher English SOL tests.  Here we see the third grade scores later recovering to near the 75% accreditation benchmark.

The abuse of the VGLA before 2011 was so outrageous (as you can see here) that the General Assembly passed a law in 2010 to curtail it.

The Board of “Education,” reacting to the new law, restricted the VGLA to reading and LEP students beginning in 2013.  The scores, however, remained high, settling a bit this year to 95.4%. 

There are at least three possible explanations for these phenomenal, post-2013 pass rates:

  • Most of the LEP students are from Lake Woebegon;
  • The LEP tests are very easy; or
  • Schools have been misclassifying kids as LEP (or cheating in some other manner) in order to boost their pass rates.

The fourth and fifth grade numbers show much the same pattern.  Note: No data for the fourth grade for 2017; I haven’t found the reason. 



The middle school data show lower VGLA pass rates in the sixth grade and the high VGLA scores vanishing in the seventh and eighth grades.  Note: No data for the sixth and seventh grades for 2017 .




Notice also the general absence of anomalous pass rates prior to 2013 in the middle school data.

The participation counts show that either there are many more 3d grade LEP students or, more likely, the schools have been using their one year of VGLA eligibility at the first opportunity.


These curves also show the 2011 effect of the 2010 statute requiring that the superintendent and the school board chairman certify every student taking the VGLA.  The drops in 2013 correspond with the new tests and the restriction of the reading VGLA to LEP students.

The fall enrollments show larger numbers of ESL students in the lower grades but less than the ca. 3:1 preponderance of third grade VGLA test takers.  I didn’t find data for the LEP populations.


The math VGLA data end at the advent of the new test in 2012.  The third grade data do not suggest abuse of the VGLA during the period of those data.


In the higher grades, some anomalous VGLA scores are evident, esp. in the middle school grades.






In contrast to the reading tests, here we see unusually high pass rates prior to the advent of the new tests in middle school, but not so much elementary school.

Plainly, there was a while lot of cheating going on before 2011.  These data do not immediately suggest the reason for the relatively cheating-free areas.

Let’s turn to the anomalously high reading VGLA pass rates persisting in the elementary grades to the present. 

If the LEP tests were very easy in the elementary grades, one might think they would be very easy for the middle school grades.  At the same time, if elementary schools were cheating, we can wonder why the middle schools would not be doing the same thing.  For sure, it looks like they were in math, prior to the abolition of the math VGLA.

As to the mechanism for cheating: It doesn’t have to be misclassification.  As we have seen in Petersburg, the proctors can be helpful to the students taking the SOL tests.  In the case of the VGLA, it is particularly easy to be helpful because the data are collected throughout the year:

The VGLA Reading assessment provides the eligible LEP student opportunities throughout the
school year to demonstrate his/her knowledge and achievement through a non-traditional mode of testing. The student creates work samples that demonstrate his/her knowledge and skills of the Reading SOL for his/her grade level of enrollment. These work samples are assembled as the Collection of Evidence (COE).

2016-2017 VGLA Implementation Manual at p.7.  See the note above.

I’m told that the technique here is to drill the kid on one item, test that item, and repeat as needed.

One thing for sure: The Board of “Education” had to know that the VGLA was being gamed before 2010 and they did exactly nothing until the General Assembly intervened. 

More recently, there’s no sign they did anything about the post-2013 inflated pass rates until this year when the feds made them drop the test.  That Board has to be corrupt or a bunch of very slow learners.

Looking at what they’ve done in response to the federal ban, in light of their earlier behavior, I vote for “corrupt.” 

Here is the Superintendent’s memo regarding the VGLA termination.

As a reminder, SOL testing may be discontinued for EL [“English Learner”] students who struggle with reading the test items after the student has responded to five items (not including the sample items). Students who answer at least five items will be counted as participants in the Reading test for purposes of federal accountability. The Standards of Accreditation (SOA) adjustment remains available for students who are currently classified as EL and have been enrolled in a Virginia public school for fewer than 11 semesters, as does the one-time exemption in Reading for recently arrived EL students in grades 3 through 8.

So, while we wait to see whether the locals can find another way to game the new system, we have an official window of opportunity:  As long as the proctor can count to five, “EL” students can duck the test but be counted toward the required participation rate(!).  Perhaps those kids can no longer be abused to boost the scores, but they don’t have to harm the scores either.

Your tax dollars at “work.”