In Virginia, Passing Rates Rise on State Tests, But Schools Fall Short of Federal Standards

By Nick Anderson and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 14, 2009

Roughly nine of every 10 public school students in Northern Virginia passed the state's reading and math tests in the spring, with achievement gaps narrowing and passing rates edging upward or holding steady across the region.

Yet data released Thursday show that more schools in the region and statewide are falling short of academic targets that rise steadily each year. Many educators are wondering how much more improvement is possible under a federal rating system that essentially demands perfect performance in the next five years.

"I'm definitely worried about that," said Patricia I. Wright, state superintendent of public instruction. "That's a question being raised all over the country, in terms of whether or not 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is a realistic statistical goal. All of us agree that's an educational goal that we want to stand by."

Said Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale: "We'll all max out at something less than 100 percent."

The data show that 525 Virginia schools, or 28 percent, failed to make adequate progress under federal education law in 2008-09. In the previous year, 479 schools, or 26 percent, fell short.

At the same time, data from the Virginia Department of Education show that the percentages of students who met or exceeded proficiency in reading and math rose. Eighty-nine percent passed the Standards of Learning reading tests, up from 87 percent in 2008. And 86 percent passed the math tests, up from 84 percent.

In Loudoun and Fairfax counties, 93 percent passed in reading and 90 percent in math. Those rates mirrored or slightly outpaced last year's results. Trends were similar in other Northern Virginia school systems. In Prince William and Arlington counties, 90 percent passed in reading; the rates for math were 87 percent in Prince William and 86 percent in Arlington. In Alexandria, 85 percent passed in reading, 76 percent in math.

The share of Fairfax schools making adequate yearly progress rose from 74 to 81 percent. But elsewhere in the region, those ratings fell. Seventy percent of Arlington's schools made adequate progress last year; this year, 57 percent. In Loudoun, 96 percent of schools made adequate progress last year; this year, 77 percent. Arlington and Loudoun officials said that some schools fell short based on the scores of a handful of students.

The disparity of rising student scores and the falling school ratings stems from a goal that many experts say is unattainable: universal student proficiency.

Under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law, public schools must give annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. They must also show progress toward a goal of having all students pass those tests by 2014, with target passing rates rising steadily over time.

As a result, schools that make the grade one year might fall short the next even if they have identical or slightly better test results. Target passing rates in Virginia rose four points this year, to 81 percent in reading and 79 percent in math. Next year, the targets will rise four more points.

In an effort to close achievement gaps, the law also requires progress among students from racial and ethnic minorities, those with disabilities and those with limited English skills.

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