Northern Virginia students, who have long scored above the national norms on scholastic aptitude tests, did well again this year, scoring generally above the national average in the Science Research Associate reading, math, social studies and science tests.
Leading the way was Fairfax County, which traditionally sets the pace in SRA testing regionally. Its scores were about the same as they were last year.
There was good news, too, in Alexandria, which has a larger percentage of low-income families than other Northern Virginia jurisdictions. Alexandria officials reported that student test results were up slightly from last year.
Falls Church student scores, on the other hand, declined slightly, although they remained above national averages.
In the tiny community of Manassas Park, 11th grade results dipped nine points, and scores were below the national average.
Arlington, Loudoun and Fauquier counties did not release their test results. Prince William County released its results earlier.
Claude Sandy, Virginia's associate director for testing, said individual test results were mailed to parents last month and that all superintendents in the state have received the results from their school systems.
He said his department will release the overall state results in late June.
This is the second consecutive year that the SRA test has been used in Virginia, and most local school officials say they have awaited the results with mixed feelings. They say that, while the test results can be useful in finding weak spots in a school's curriculum or for confirming the success of a particular program, they also can be used unfairly by parents as a yardstick to measure the effectiveness of school systems.
"Parents are thinking of moving here and the first thing they do is write me and ask for a copy of our test results," said Jerry Bruns, director of pupil services in Falls Church. The 4th, 8th and 11th graders in the Falls Church school system, which has less than 1,000 students, scored in the 70th, 68th and 68th percentiles, respectively, this year--well above the national average but 3 to 7 percent lower than last year. That means the fourth graders, for instance, scored better than 70 percent of all those who took the test nationally.
"Our problem is that, with such a small school system, three or four fourth graders not doing well will bring down our whole average," Bruns said. "That is just one of many reasons why these test results should be looked at very carefully."
Local school officials also say that, no matter how excellent the school system, students from lower-income families score lower on the SRA test than students from higher income families.
"We are an urban area," said Alexandria school evaluator James Akin. "Children from affluent middle-class homes come to school prepared to learn, eager to achieve. Their urban counterparts may have homes with no books, may not have traveled, may not have the same incentive to learn. That certainly affects scores."
He said that "a lot of administrators fear these test results because they've been misused. They can be very constructive if read right. Otherwise, they just turn into a horse race between communities."
In Fairfax County, the composite score for the reading, math and language arts section of the test was 76 percent out of a possible 100 percent for the county's 4th, 8th and 11th graders.
Manassas Park's 1,500-student school system, which was created seven years ago, reported its 11th grade scores dropped from the 46th percentile to the 37th percentile overall this year.
The state requires school systems to give the SRA test to 4th, 8th and 11th grade students each year. The state funds tests for students in those grades, and some school systems finance tests for other grades as well.
Manassas Park school Superintendent Gary Smith said the scores have pointed out a serious problem with 11th grade students, whose composite scores ranged from 37 to 49 percent and were below last year's scores.
"We didn't do as good a job in the 11th grade as I would have liked," Smith said. "Our students are mostly from blue-collar, working-class families and it's expected they will be a little behind Fairfax. But this points out some real problems in our curriculum that can't be ignored."
Prince William County, where the composite scores were 69 percent for fourth graders, 68 percent for eighth graders and 63 percent for 11th graders, has released a detailed analysis on the test results. Superintendents in the other area school systems said they will have reports ready this summer.
"We gear up all year to get our hands on these tests," Alexandria's Akins said.
Not all communities treat the test results with reverence. In Fauquier County, only one school official has looked at the SRA scores, and no one there could produce a copy of the test results to answer a reporter's questions last week. "Maybe some communities make a big to-do about this," assistant superintendent Fred Essex said. "We just get a committee together over the summer to look them over."