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Virginia schools fall short of new benchmarks, but scores rise slightly

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010

Average scores on Virginia's Standards of Learning math exams rose slightly and reading performance remained static in the 2009-10 school year, but the vast majority of public schools across the state failed to meet new performance benchmarks for graduation rates and for students with disabilities, according to results released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

Fairfax County was the only school division in Northern Virginia and one of only 12 across the state -- out of 132 -- that met all benchmarks, compared with 60 across the state last year. The portion of schools that met state testing goals dropped from 71 percent to 60 percent.

The dramatic declines were due largely to changes in how success or failure is calculated in the state. "We had some big changes in the rules of the game," said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

Forty-one high schools, including about a dozen in Northern Virginia, and nine school systems missed the mark because of a new requirement that at least 80 percent of students graduate with an advanced or standard diploma within four or five years. The previous target was 61 percent, and graduation rates were calculated differently.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright said in a statement that Virginia's goals for graduation are "aggressive" and that the initial results "send a clear message about the importance of graduating more students."

A federal policy that allowed schools to bolster the passing rates for students with disabilities was discontinued this year, also leading to a drop in performance. Without the bump, 87 schools and 15 school divisions, including Prince William County, missed targets.

No Child Left Behind, the landmark 2002 federal education law, was created with the goal that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Schools face sanctions if they miss increasing targets for subgroups based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and disabilities.

In Virginia and many other states, performance has risen steadily in recent years, and it has become more difficult to achieve year-over-year gains. The Virginia Board of Education received permission from the U.S. Education Department to keep the target passing rates steady at 81 percent for reading and 79 percent in math, with the stipulation that schools must exceed those goals.

Pressure is mounting for all states to show progress on tougher-to-reach students, by reducing dropout rates and improving gains for students with disabilities, said Jack Jennings, president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy.

"Virginia has made substantial progress on goals that were considered highly ambitious years ago, but the question now is how to move on to the next stage," he said.

How to most accurately test students with disabilities remains a key question for policymakers in Virginia and nationwide as they shape the future of the education accountability system. Finding the right test for students with widely different learning impediments is a challenge. Virginia officials last year began scrutinizing school systems' use of an alternative, portfolio-style test that they said has been over-used for special education students. They plan to begin phasing in a more objective online exam starting in 2011-12.

The state did not disclose on Thursday how many portfolios, or packages of student worksheets, quizzes and activities, were given this year. But in Fairfax, just over 10,758 portfolios were administered, mostly in English and math, up from 9,439 the previous year. Portfolios tend to have higher passing rates than multiple-choice tests.

Average math scores continued to rise in Fairfax, the state's largest jurisdiction, across all subgroups, while passing rates in English remained steady, dropping slightly for Hispanic students and those still learning English.

Alexandria and Arlington missed the 80 percent graduation rate goal. Alexandria improved average math scores, while English performance dipped for some groups. Average scores in Arlington County were static in English and up in math but fell short of the state goals for many groups.

In Loudoun County, math and reading scores rose slightly, with overall passing rates exceeding 90 percent for each. But for the first time in at least three years, the district missed targets in reading for English learners and in math for some groups, including students with disabilities.

Wayde Byard, spokesman for Loudoun schools, said scores improved in many areas, so it seemed strange to fall short of state standards. But he knows the county is in good company. "This leaves us scratching our head a little bit," he said.


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