The Virginia Board of Education will propose a major change in its school standards program, giving some leeway to schools that fail to meet state benchmarks on student tests but are close to the targets and making steady progress, state officials said yesterday.

Under the proposed changes, to be announced today, such schools would lose their accreditation but would escape a requirement to make staffing or instructional changes. The proposal does not specify how close they would have to come to the benchmarks to be given a reprieve.

The board's new plan, which it will vote on after a series of public hearings, follows widespread concern that many schools will fail to meet the achievement standards by the state's deadline of 2007. Only 7 percent of the state's public schools reached the benchmarks on the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in the spring, the second year of the testing program, and many local school officials had called on the board to change its timetable or adjust the standards.

Several Northern Virginia school officials endorsed the changes yesterday, although they said they remain concerned about other aspects of the testing and accountability program.

Fairfax County School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech called the concession for schools that are close to the target "a good safeguard, since they are going to have a lot of schools in that category."

The SOL tests cover basic subjects and are given to students in grades 3, 5 and 8 and in high school. The rules passed by the state board two years ago said that any school would need a student passing rate of 70 percent on the tests by 2007--except for third-grade history and third-grade science, where the required pass rate is 50 percent--to keep its accreditation.

The new proposal would create a category called "improving schools near accreditation." Those schools would not be required to make changes in their staffs or curriculum. Low-performing schools that did not qualify for this label would have to voluntarily undergo a "reconstitution"--a process in which they would agree to make major staffing or instructional changes--to regain their accreditation.

The new rules also would create "intermediate annual benchmarks" between now and 2007 so that schools would know whether they were making acceptable progress toward the state's goals. Schools that fell significantly short of those benchmarks in reading and math would be expected to switch to a curriculum that has been shown to raise student achievement in those subjects.

State officials discussed the new proposal on the condition they not be identified. A copy of a summary of the plan says one of the goals of the changes is to identify and help the lowest-performing schools as early as possible.

The new rules also would allow high school students taking and passing Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams to skip the SOL test in the same subject.

Craig D. Jerald, project director for Quality Counts, the annual review of state education reform programs by the newspaper Education Week, said Virginia appears to be joining other states in becoming "more flexible so that you judge schools on an individual basis." He said "the danger is that you might build in so much flexibility . . . that schools will be allowed to fail indefinitely."

Elaine S. Furlow, a member of the Arlington County School Board, said she liked the idea of treating improving schools differently from schools that are not making progress but wished the state board would consider giving more credit to schools with large numbers of low-income students. "There is no recognition of the fact that a school with a very challenging population will start at a much lower point," she said.

Several local school officials also said they are waiting to see how much extra funding the state will provide to schools with low SOL scores.

"They need more financial support than the state or local school districts are able or willing to give without changing the tax base," said Pam Latt, principal of Centreville High School in Fairfax County.

State officials said the state board will agree next week to hold public hearings on the proposed changes and move toward a vote as early as January. They said the board then will look for ways to get more money and effective ideas to schools with the lowest scores.