Faced with the prospect of raising students' scores on the rigorous Standards of Learning tests, several area schools measured up to the task, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
Twelve schools in Prince William County, Manassas and Stafford County were recognized by the state for making the greatest improvement on the SOL tests between spring 1988, when the tests were first administered, and this year.
The SOLs are given to students in grades 3, 5 and 8 and in high school. Schools must achieve a passing rate of 70 percent on most "core area" tests or risk losing accreditation by the 2006-2007 school year. None of the schools recognized would have met the accreditation standard with their most recent test scores, but several of them showed double-digit percentage gains from 1998 to 1999.
At Jennie Dean Elementary School in Manassas, teachers improved scores by working after school with students on reading skills. Principal Diane Pate said she plans to expand a successful after-school tutoring program that helped children with reading and math skills.
Pate also plans to take advantage of the unstructured time some students have before classes start. Every student at Dean Elementary rides the bus to school, and some arrive a half-hour before classes begin. Pate said her staff is in the process of finding out which of those students who arrive early could benefit from morning study hall.
At Andrew G. Wright Middle School in Stafford, faculty appealed to the students' competitive spirit.
"There has been such a commitment with the staff," said Jerry Jenkins, who is the new principal of the school this year. "They got their kids interested in not just being in the middle range or the lower middle range but being the best."
Wright Middle was recognized not just regionally but also statewide among middle schools for its improvements.
And at Triangle Elementary in Prince William, a school of primarily poor students who often are lagging in reading and math skills, improvement came after revamping the entire curriculum--eliminating the grade system for younger students and ensuring continuity for older students by giving them the same teacher for fourth- and fifth-grades. The program is unusual in Prince William.
The Triangle Elementary third-graders who took the SOL tests this past spring were the first ones to spend their entire school career in the restructured program. About 96 percent of them passed the English test, 92 percent the math test, 88 percent social studies and 92 percent science. For the previous year, the passing rate on the third-grade tests was no higher than 56 percent.
Triangle's fifth-graders also showed gains. About 78 percent of them passed the writing test, compared with 45 percent the previous year. In science, 49 percent passed, compared with 45 percent the year before. Only in fifth-grade social studies did the passing rate drop, to 19 percent from 20 percent in 1998.
Triangle Principal Carolyn Haley said she "just yelled" with happiness once she got a phone call with news of the scores. She said the program has been successful because students are being taught from where they are when they enter the 500-student school, rather than being forced into a curriculum based on their age. Some 5-year-olds enter the school at the developmental level of a 2- or 3-year-old, Haley said.
Extra reading instruction and test-taking skills are also woven into the curriculum.
"They see it as part of their instruction. It's kind of filtered in," Haley said.
According to proposed changes in the SOL requirements, schools such as these that are achieving gains each year might not face immediate loss of accreditation for missing the 70 percent mark in every subject test.
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.
Pate, principal at Dean Elementary, said such a change would serve as a morale booster for teachers who are improving each year, even if the guideline is missed.
"I just think that validates what the teachers are doing," Pate said. "It's just a positive approach."
The other schools recognized by the state are Osbourn High in Manassas, and Grafton Village Elementary, Hartwood Elementary, Rockhill Elementary, H.H. Poole Middle, Stafford Middle, T. Benton Gayle Middle, North Stafford High and Stafford Senior High, all in Stafford.