Virginia public school students did better than last year on all 27 of the state's achievement tests, according to figures released yesterday, and state officials said the results show that students and schools are capable of meeting Virginia's tough new standards.

"These results clearly show that all the hard work by Virginia's students and teachers is paying off," said Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). "Given this is only the second year of the . . . tests, we should all be encouraged by this remarkable progress."

Despite the improvement, at least 38 percent of the state's high school students flunked one or more basic subjects on the exams administered last spring and thus would have failed to meet graduation requirements under rules that will take effect with the Class of 2004.

Also, Virginia officials said they have yet to calculate how many schools met the state's benchmarks for performance on the tests, which are given in grades three, five and eight as well as in high school. Last year, in the first year of testing, less than 3 percent of the state's public schools met those standards. Schools that have not reached the target by 2007 will lose their accreditation.

The state figures released yesterday, however, show significant improvement in the rates at which students passed the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. For example, 56 percent of the students passed the Algebra I test, compared with 40 percent last year, and 51 percent passed the Algebra II test, compared with 31 percent in 1998.

Exam results released yesterday by school officials in Arlington and Prince William counties showed a similar trend. Arlington students improved on 25 of the 27 SOL tests, and Prince William posted gains on 24 exams.

At the same time, only three Arlington schools met the state's accreditation standards, compared with two schools last year, and for the second year, there were no Prince William schools in that category. To meet the state's standards, a school must achieve a passing rate of 70 percent on each of the tests, except for third-grade history and third-grade science, where the required passing rate is 50 percent.

Results released earlier by Alexandria officials showed that its students improved in all subjects tested but that none of its schools met the state benchmark. Fairfax and Loudoun officials have yet to release their results, although Fairfax's superintendent said preliminary figures show that 46 of the county's 202 schools reached the state target, compared with only 13 in 1998.

Last year, many local educators and parents voiced alarm at the high student and school failure rates on the new exams, while state officials urged patience and said that scores would gradually improve as teachers and students became more familiar with the new curriculum on which the exams are based.

Local school officials reacted with cautious optimism yesterday to the results from the second round of testing.

"Basically, we would say that we're pleased with the progress, but we're not where we need to be in some subjects," said Prince William Superintendent Edward L. Kelly. Despite its improved scores, Prince William's passing rates are below the statewide passing rates on 17 of the 27 exams.

Arlington's passing rates, on the other hand, exceed the state's on 25 SOL tests. Arlington Superintendent Robert G. Smith said that having "just one [more] school jumping into that [accreditation] column isn't great progress," but he applauded the overall results as movement in the right direction.

Statewide, fifth-grade history remained the toughest of the elementary school tests. Forty-six percent of students passed it, compared with 33 percent last year. Many eighth-grade and high school students also had trouble in history.

Darci Whitehead-Scanlon, the principal at Prince William's Montclair Elementary, which was below state standards for fifth-grade history and fifth-grade math, said the state needs to reexamine the history test, which she said puts too much emphasis on recall of specific facts.

"You want to have a knowledge base for the students, but I don't want my kids to be good Trivial Pursuit players," she said.

State Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said he was pleased at students' generally improved performance but remained concerned about all the history tests. He noted that the state Board of Education has created a committee of teachers to make sure the questions are age-appropriate and understandable.

Several testing specialists outside Virginia said the second-year SOL results are encouraging. They said the figures are in line with the amount of improvement that should be expected on such exams, adding that gains should remain steady for the next few years.

"It is very typical for states to see modest gains in the second year of standardized tests," said Craig D. Jerald, project director of the annual Quality Counts assessments of state education reform published by the newspaper Education Week and the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Typically, the gains aren't massive . . . but they indicate teachers are becoming more familiar with the test and the expectations for students," Jerald said.

Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.

Standards of Learning Improvements

The figures below show the percentage of students statewide in Virginia who passed each of the 27 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

Grade 3

Passing rate Passing rate

SOL Test 1998 1999

English 53% 61%

Mathematics 63 68

History and Social Science 49 62

Science 63 68

Grade 5

Passing rate Passing rate

SOL Test 1998 1999

English

(Reading, Literature, Research) 68% 69%

English (Writing) 65 81

Mathematics 47 51

History and Social Science 33 46

Science 59 67

Computer/ Technology 72 81

Grade 8

Passing rate Passing rate

SOL Test 1998 1999

English

(Reading, Literature, Research) 64% 67%

English (Writing) 67 70

Mathematics 53 60

History and Social Science 35 40

Science 71 78

Computer/ Technology 63 72

High school

Passing rate Passing rate

SOL Test 1998 1999

English

(Reading, Literature, Research) 72% 75%

English (Writing) 71 81

Algebra I 40 56

Algebra II 31 51

Geometry 52 62

Earth Science 58 65

Biology 72 81

Chemistry 54 64

World History

(To 1000 A.D.*) 62 68

World History

(From 1000 A.D. to present*) 41 47

U.S. History 30 32

*Plus World Geography

SOURCE: Virginia Standards of Learning Assessments