Middle Schools' Performance Dips as Math Testing Is Expanded

By Maria Glod and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 1, 2006

The number of Northern Virginia public schools that failed to meet annual performance standards jumped by one-third this year, largely because of poor performances on new middle school mathematics tests.

Education officials said yesterday that 71 schools in five Northern Virginia districts did not make the grade under the federal No Child Left Behind law, compared with 53 last year. About half of those that fell short this year were middle schools where students earned lower-than-expected marks in sixth- and seventh-grade math.

The ratings drew on results from the first round of Standards of Learning tests to include every grade from 3 through 8, a major expansion of the testing program that yielded higher English scores statewide but sharply lower math scores. Fairfax County, with the state's largest school system, narrowed the achievement gap in English tests between white students and their black and Hispanic peers.

Each year since the 2002 enactment of the federal law, schools across the country have found it more difficult to meet steadily rising targets. The goal is known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP. The challenge in Virginia was compounded this year by the introduction of new tests. Experts say scores are often low when tests debut as students and teachers adjust to them.

Local AYP ratings mirrored the statewide picture. About 22 percent of the state's 1,822 schools did not meet benchmark pass rates. That was up from 17 percent -- 306 schools -- the previous year. It is the first time since the federal law went into effect that the number of schools failing to meet standards increased in Virginia.

That marked at least a public-relations setback for the affected schools. But the law's most serious consequences -- including a forced shakeup of schools that fall short for several years -- have not kicked in anywhere in Northern Virginia.

Troubled by the low math scores, Loudoun County School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III yesterday said he contacted state Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannaday Jr. to express concern. Arlington County school officials also questioned the tests. Prince William County schools have created a task force to find ways to boost scores.

"There are some things that don't make sense. There are children who scored well as fifth-graders in math but did not score well as sixth-graders," Hatrick said. "We will certainly be looking at what we have done and not done locally . . . to teach students, but given the extremely low pass results across the whole state, I think there is good reason to expect that there is something wrong either with the test itself or with the pass score that was set by the state."

Cannaday said the state Department of Education reviewed the tests and found no problems with the questions or the scoring. Some dips were expected, he said, because the new tests delve deeper into classroom lessons. But he acknowledged that educators were caught off guard.

"It wasn't that teachers weren't teaching hard. It wasn't that they didn't care about the assessment," Cannaday said, adding that a panel of teachers, superintendents and testing experts is studying the issue. "We'll look at places where students met expectations and what's different in places where students didn't."

Maryland schools also struggled with middle school performance this year, with most middle schools in the highly regarded Montgomery County system failing to meet performance targets established separately by that state. District schools have not yet released test scores that will show how well schools measure up under the federal law.

Virginia educators said they expected a slight rise in the total of schools that didn't make the grade because of the expansion of testing to fourth, sixth and seventh grades. In previous years, tests were given only in third, fifth and eighth grades as well as in high school.

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