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Area Schools Reach for a Higher Bar On State Tests

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

Half of elementary students in Northern Virginia and a third in the Maryland counties that surround Washington are scoring at the highest levels on state tests in reading and math, blowing past the goals of the No Child Left Behind law.

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The finding, based on a Washington Post analysis, suggests that area schools have ambitions beyond the federal education mandate and don't need the threat of sanctions to reach them. It could also allay fears among some parents and academics that the 2002 law would dumb down public education by forcing schools to focus on low achievers.

The law sets a target of "proficiency," which students can demonstrate by passing annual exams. Schools that fall short can face penalties. But many easily meet that threshold, year in and year out, so they are chasing a higher standard: "advanced," indicating that a student has aced the tests.

"Proficient is not good enough," said Jody Leleck, chief academic officer for Montgomery County schools, where principals and teachers are encouraged to think of the state test as "a low bar."

The percentage of elementary students scoring advanced on Standards of Learning exams in eight Northern Virginia cities and counties has risen from 30 percent in 2003 to 51 percent this year. On the Maryland School Assessment exams, 34 percent of students in eight Washington area counties rated advanced this year, up from 17 percent five years ago. Even in the distressed D.C. public schools, a growing sliver of elementary and middle school students is reaching advanced scores -- 7 percent this year, up from 5 percent in 2006.

At first glance, testing gains are no surprise. Scores often rise over time as teachers and students become acclimated to state tests. But the rise in advanced performance is evidence, some educators say, that all calibers of students are making progress.

The law rewards schools for passing tests, period. Its goal is a 100 percent passing rate by 2014. There is no incentive to attain a higher standard. Schools are pursuing advanced performance largely on their own or through encouragement by school system leaders.

Proficiency, in the parlance of testing, means command of core grade-level skills. Advanced means a student has mastered much or all of the material being tested. Students who rate advanced on either Maryland's or Virginia's test tend to be capable of academic acceleration and might be "gifted," although the tests do not measure students on skills above their grade.

Soon after the law was enacted, schools focused urgently on passing tests. They had little choice: significant percentages of students regionwide failed the tests in 2003. Schools with subpar passing rates can face penalties, the harshest of which is a management shakeup.

Passing tests remains the major task in high-poverty areas of Prince George's County and the District, where schools have made less progress toward advanced levels.

But passing rates have risen across the region, often topping 90 percent in Maryland and Virginia schools.

"Our kids pretty much all pass," said Patricia Anderson, principal of McKinley Elementary School in Arlington County, where four-fifths of students are rated advanced, the strongest performance of any elementary school in Northern Virginia. "We are looking at, how strongly did they pass?"

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