Fewer than 100 Northern Virginia seniors failed to graduate with their classmates in June solely because of their performance on state standardized tests.
Graduation numbers were highly anticipated this year, the first in which students were required to pass six high school Standards of Learning exams or approved substitutes to receive a diploma.
More than 20,300 seniors were enrolled in Northern Virginia schools this spring. Some of them did not get diplomas because they failed classes, regardless of whether they passed the SOLs. But only a handful -- fewer than 1 percent in many districts -- fell short only because of their performance in the state testing program.
Since 1998, students have taken SOL exams in third, fifth and eighth grades and in high school in English, history, math and science. This year, their scores counted officially for the first time: To graduate, they were required to pass high school tests in reading and writing, usually taken in the 11th grade, and four other tests in subjects of their choice. In 2007, they will be required to spread those tests across the curriculum.
In D.C. schools, graduation requirements are not tied to standardized test scores. Maryland seniors will be required to pass state tests to graduate from high school starting in 2009.
Virginia Board of Education President Thomas M. Jackson Jr. said the tests foiled few seniors because they served their intended purpose. School districts used test results to identify struggling students and provided one-on-one help in time to get most of them to graduation on time, he said.
"I see this as our first look at what tomorrow's education may be like in Virginia, and not just for seniors," he said. "We've never had the data to identify [struggling] students in as exact a way as we're capable of doing now."
In Fairfax County, the state's largest school district, only 21 of the 11,320 seniors enrolled in June were barred from graduating only because of the tests. In Arlington County, 10 students failed to graduate because of the tests, while there were 32 such students in Prince William County. In some districts, including Fauquier County, no students were denied diplomas because of the tests. In the region, only Spotsylvania and Stafford Counties did not provide graduation numbers by last week.
Students who didn't graduate because of the tests were allowed to enroll in summer school, along with those who still needed to pass classes for diplomas. If the students pass the tests eventually, school systems will record them as graduating with the class of 2004.
At the beginning of the school year, more than 3,000 seniors still needed to pass at least one test to graduate. School officials said they removed students from the danger list one by one by providing tutoring and extra attention.
Keith Gayler, a researcher who has analyzed high school exit exam programs nationwide, said Virginia is one of the few states that has put together a well-publicized package of statewide tutorials and seminars to help struggling students.
"Virginia was really at the forefront of saying we're going to have [help] in place before this is a requirement," said Gayler, who is associate director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy.
Virginia officials also have included alternatives and options for students who have trouble with SOL exams. Students can take tests multiple times. In addition, students who fail a history or science SOL exam but receive tutoring, take the test again and come close to passing can be counted as passing by their school districts. In Alexandria, 31 students received one or more such "local" credits. Of the 2,039 seniors who graduated in Loudoun County in June, 130 received one or more local credits.
There is also a list of alternative tests that students can use instead of SOL exams, including Advanced Placement exams and career licensure tests. This year, the state Board of Education approved an alternative to the required SOL writing exam called the ACT WorkKeys test. On the WorkKeys test, students listen to taped messages and then must write sentences that summarize the information.
Mickey VanDerwerker, a Bedford County School Board member who is a longtime SOL critic, contended that the alternatives -- vaunted by state officials as compassionate flexibility -- instead were an attempt to keep failure numbers low and avoid public outcry.
"I think [these results] say we've gotten really good at teaching children how to take multiple-choice tests," said VanDerwerker, a spokeswoman for the group Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs. "There wasn't a whole lot of doubt in my mind that we could do that. Whether or not that passes as real education is the $24 million question."
John Porter, principal of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, said the options have strengthened the system, not made it easier.
"I really do believe that many at the state level are trying to find what would be fair ways to assess student knowledge and skills. I applaud them for saying it's not this one test or nothing," he said.
He urged state officials to continue reviewing the SOL program, even after this year's encouraging numbers. He said the state might want to look at additional provisions to help students with limited English skills, noting that most of the 12 students who failed to graduate at his school were new to the country.
VanDerwerker also urged state officials to take a close look at figures showing that the senior class in many school districts is routinely much smaller than the freshman class four years earlier.
"The attrition issue," she said, "is huge."