The gap between the scores of black and white students on Virginia's Standards of Learning exams narrowed slightly this year, although black students' performance still lags significantly behind that of whites, according to figures released yesterday.

African American students had a higher passing rate than last year on 26 of the 27 exams, and they made greater gains than white students on 16 tests. The exams were given to all Virginia public school pupils last spring.

"The news for our African American students is very encouraging," state Board of Education President Kirk T. Schroder said in announcing the results at a legislative commission meeting in Richmond. "Virginia's new academic reforms are raising academic achievement among African American students."

White students continued to pass the tests at much higher rates, however. For example, in high school biology--one of the best subjects for high school students of both races--the passing rate was 87 percent for whites and 64 percent for blacks. In the worst subject, high school U.S. history, the passing rate was 39 percent for whites and 13 percent for blacks.

Black students usually score lower on standardized tests than whites, a gap that researchers say is often the result of differences in family income and education levels. In the case of Standards of Learning tests, which students took for the first time in 1998, the gap has drawn particular attention because of the exams' high stakes. Starting with the Class of 2004, students will have to pass six of the high school exams in order to graduate. The tests also are taken by students in grades 3, 5 and 8.

Yesterday's figures showed that at least 66 percent of black high school students would have failed to meet the requirement for a diploma if it had been in effect this year, compared to at least 30 percent of white students.

Many parents, educators and elected officials have expressed concern about the prospect of large numbers of black and Latino students being unable to graduate because of the testing program.

"Of course any improvement is encouraging, but I think this shows how far we really have to go," said Kristen Amundson, a Fairfax School Board member and a member of the state Commission on Educational Accountability, the panel that Schroder addressed yesterday.

State education officials said they expect to release results next week on the performance of Hispanic and Asian American students.

Last week, the state released the passing rates on the tests among all students, which showed improvement in every subject. Later this month, state officials will announce how many schools met the state's standards for performance on the tests. By 2007, schools where less than 70 percent of students pass the exams will lose their accreditation.

The 20-member state commission was created by the 1999 General Assembly and charged with reviewing the state's standards and testing program. The commission will issue a final report and recommendations in 2001.

Del. William W. Bennett Jr. (D-Halifax), a commission member, said that the improvement in test scores this year is encouraging but that it is too early to get excited about such gains. Bennett said it was expected that scores for all students would improve significantly in the second year of testing, as teachers and students became more familiar with the exams.

Bennett said he is awaiting the results on the performance of individual schools, which the commission and the General Assembly will use to determine what additional resources are needed to help schools meet the accreditation standards.

"I can understand why [education officials] want to put the positive statewide numbers out there, but they're not particularly relevant because we're not accrediting the state, we're accrediting individual schools," Bennett said.

Passing Rates for Blacks, Whites

The chart below shows the percentage of white and black high school students statewide who passed the Virginia Standards of Learning tests in each subject for 1998 and 1999.

English: Writing 1998 1999

Black 54 68

White 76 85

English: RLR* 1998 1999

Black 55 59

White 77 80

Algebra I 1998 1999

Black 20 36

White 46 62

Geometry 1998 1999

Black 25 34

White 59 70

Algebra II 1998 1999

Black 13 29

White 34 56

U.S. History

1998 1999

Black 12 13

White 36 39

World History A

1998 1999

Black 38 46

White 68 75

World History B

1998 1999

Black 17 21

White 49 55

Earth Science

1998 1999

Black 31 40

White 69 76

Biology

1998 1999

Black 50 64

White 81 87

Chemistry

Black 31 41

White 60 71

* Reading, Literature, ResearchSOURCE: Virginia Department of Education