Alexandria students performed much better than they did a year ago on tests given to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders throughout Virginia, although the results are still below the state's benchmarks in many academic subjects, according to figures released yesterday by school officials.

Alexandria is the first Northern Virginia school district to release preliminary results on the Standards of Learning exams taken by students this year. Officials in several other area school systems said they have received the scores of individual students but, unlike Alexandria, officials do not plan to announce their district's overall performance until the state has determined the official figures next month.

The SOL exams, given for the first time in the spring of 1998, are administered each year to students in grades three, five and eight and in high school. The scores eventually will determine which students graduate from high school and which schools keep their accreditation.

The numbers from Alexandria show that its passing rate improved this year on each of the tests taken by elementary and middle school students. The biggest improvement was in third-grade English, where the percentage of students passing the test rose from 46 percent to 64 percent. The smallest improvement was in eighth-grade math, where the passing rate went from 53 percent to 56 percent.

"These increases are due to the exceptional work of our principals, teachers, parents and students who focused all their energies on mastering the Standards of Learning," School Superintendent Herbert M. Berg said. "We have taken a giant step forward in our district's journey to accreditation."

Results for the high school exams are still being tabulated and won't be available for several days, school officials said.

Under the state's rules, schools will lose their accreditation in 2007 if their passing rates are below 50 percent in third-grade history and third-grade science and below 70 percent on the other tests. Last year, almost 98 percent of Virginia public schools--including every school in Alexandria--failed to meet those benchmarks.

Alexandria officials said they had not calculated how many of their schools, if any, met the benchmarks this year. But the school system as a whole achieved the required passing rates on only five of the 14 exams for which figures were released.

Four schools--Jefferson-Houston, Charles Barrett and John Adams elementary schools and Francis C. Hammond Middle School--reported sharp improvements in performance. At Jefferson-Houston, for example, the passing rate on the third-grade English test rose from 46 percent to an estimated 78 percent, officials said.

State officials had predicted that scores on the tests would improve significantly in most Virginia schools as students and teachers became more familiar with the new curriculum on which the exams are based.

The trend in Alexandria mirrors the pattern in a few other school districts across the state that have released their SOL results. In Roanoke County, for example, the percentage of third-graders who passed the history test rose at all schools, and the average increase was 17 percentage points. Officials in Clarke, Bedford and Scott counties also reported gains.

School officials had expected the improvement to be most dramatic in third-grade and fifth-grade history because many elementary schools had not aligned their history curriculum with the new state standards by the time last year's exams were given.