Stafford students improved their scores on nearly all of this year's Standards of Learning tests, moving every county school closer to state accreditation.

No Stafford school scored well enough to receive accreditation, but students received strong marks in most subjects, with third-graders doing especially well. Third-graders in six schools had passing scores on English, math, history and science tests, but scores from fifth-graders were lower.

"We're about where we thought we'd be at this time," said Superintendent Russell L. Watson. "We absolutely do not expect any problem at all meeting the thresholds for accreditation. We anticipate most of our elementary schools will meet the threshold by 2002. . . . Many will finish up next year."

The Standards of Learning (SOL) tests are administered to students in grades 3, 5 and 8 and to high school students as they reach a particular class, such as geometry. Seventy percent of a school's students must pass each test for their school to receive accreditation; only 50 percent of third-graders must pass history and science.

The glaring exception to the upward trend were the scores on the history exams, which proved to be a stumbling block for students in elementary, middle and upper schools. Although history scores did improve, in some cases by almost as much as 20 percent, they still fell well short of the passing mark.

"History up and down the line stands out in a bad way," Watson said.

He added that the low scores, which were consistent across the state, had as much to do with the tests as the students taking them.

"Something is pretty wrong there when students passing the AP [history] exam for college credit don't pass the SOL test," Watson said. "There has been a flaw with that test."

The state has issued a resource guide to help with the history exam, and officials have narrowed the scope of what they expect students to know, so scores should rise next year, Watson said.

Also bucking the overall upward trend were scores for many fifth- and eight-grade Stafford students who regressed in the reading and writing categories. Watson attributed that decline to an emphasis on other subjects and promised that teachers would shift some of their focus back to reading and writing.

Watson also said that some schools will experiment with extending classes for students struggling in specific subjects. But he cautioned that such a plan might prove problematic, because it would prevent students from taking desired electives.

SOL tests have been a lightning rod for criticism since they were first proposed earlier this decade. Proponents argue that the tests contain information all students should know before they graduate, while opponents fear that such standardization will restrict teachers and lead to merely drilling in facts.

Last year was the first year the test was given. The next seven years essentially are practice rounds to get administrators, teachers and students acclimated to the system. Official accreditation will begin in 2006, though officials have yet to determine the penalty for schools that don't achieve that status.