More than eight of 10 Virginia schools met state accreditation standards this year, continuing an improving trend since state Standards of Learning tests were implemented in 1998.
Students in 1,514 of the state's 1,807 schools, about 84 percent, met or exceeded the target passing rates on English, history, math and science tests, compared with 78 percent last year and 65 percent in 2002. The exams are given to students in grades 3, 5 and 8 and high school.
In Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties, more schools were accredited this year than last, and all the schools in Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park and in Stafford and Loudoun counties were accredited. This was the third year Loudoun has achieved that status.
Achieving state accreditation is separate from achieving "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In Virginia, both are measured using SOL test results. But the federal law requires schools to meet target pass rates in each of several subgroups of students, including some minority groups, disabled students, poor students and students who are learning English as a second language. The state, by contrast, averages all students' scores on each test at each grade level.
This year's state accreditation standards were more stringent than last year's for elementary students. A 75 percent pass rate is now required in English, compared with 70 percent in previous years. In addition, science and history scores for third-graders counted in previous years only if they helped boost a school's overall rating; this year, all scores for those third-grade tests were counted, with a target pass rate of 50 percent.
Jo Lynne DeMary, Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, said the state Board of Education "really decided . . . to put an emphasis on reading in the early years."
One Alexandria school, Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, joined the list of schools "accredited with warning" because it missed the new English standard by 1 percentage point. "They are so heartbroken," Alexandria Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry said. "But they'll be back next year."
A second change implemented this year dropped "provisional" accreditation rankings, so schools were either accredited or accredited "with warning" -- meaning that those schools would not be fully accredited if the year were 2007, the first year schools will be at risk of losing their accreditation.
In Fairfax County, 95 percent of schools were fully accredited, compared with 91 percent last year. Superintendent Jack D. Dale said yesterday that he was pleased with the district's overall performance and that extra attention is being given to the six elementary schools that received warnings.
"Overall, Fairfax County is doing very well," Dale said. "We're continuing to improve." He noted that the six elementary schools that were accredited with warning are among those with the most poor children and the greatest numbers of students who are learning English. All six are part of Project Excel, a program that offers longer hours and strengthened academics.
Although the Virginia schools are improving by state accreditation standards, the different federal standards create the potential for confusion. Students at some of the area's schools with the most poverty must be allowed to transfer if their school does not make adequate yearly progress, even if the school is fully accredited by the state.
Perry said she encourages parents to pay attention to state accreditation rather than the federal adequate yearly progress. Nine Alexandria schools did not meet the federal standards -- which seek to hold schools accountable for raising the scores of minority and special-needs students to the level of other students -- but only four did not meet the state standard this year.
"A school can be very, very successful and not make" adequate yearly progress, Perry said.
Sharon D. Ackerman, Loudoun's assistant superintendent for instruction, said that although five county schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, school officials have encountered few questions about the difference between that and accreditation.
"I think largely No Child Left Behind is less understood and probably less relevant to parents," she said.
Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Maria Glod contributed to this report.