Loudoun County public school officials cheered new figures showing that every school in the county has met state standards for full accreditation based on Standards of Learning test scores. At the same time, they cautioned against using the accreditation label in isolation to judge the quality of schools.
Virginia students take the exams in third, fifth and eighth grades and in high school. Starting in 2007, 70 percent of students at each school must pass exams in English, math, history and science for the school to maintain full accreditation. In Loudoun, all 49 schools in which SOL exams were administered in May met the mark this year, before the deadline.
Loudoun is the state's largest school district with all its schools fully accredited. The next largest, the Roanoke County public school district, has 26 schools.
"The important part is these ratings indicate that more and more of our students are being successful," said Sharon D. Ackerman, assistant superintendent for instruction. "Our teachers are becoming more fully acquainted with what the SOLs require. . . . It's a lot of factors coming together."
Accreditation is based on adjusted pass rates for each school. They exclude certain students, some with limited proficiency in English. The state also bases a school's rating on an average of scores over three years if that number is higher than scores in a single year.
State officials have not set penalties that would be imposed if a school failed to reach accreditation by 2007. Educators have expressed concern that the state could reduce funding to such schools, but Virginia Board of Education President Mark C. Christie said there were no such plans. He said a school's reputation should provide the motive for achieving the goal.
Ackerman said Loudoun has devoted more than $350,000 over the past three years, in addition to state funds set aside for the same purpose, to assist failing students. The money has allowed 18 Loudoun schools to start "Early Back" programs, in which students who need extra help start school before their peers and have after-school and Saturday tutoring.
Ackerman also said she was pleased that more than 90 percent of students passed exams in the core areas at 10 Loudoun schools, a goal set by the School Board.
Last year, six schools missed the 70 percent mark needed for the full accreditation rating. Although the state judged that each was making acceptable progress toward the goal last year, several principals said this year's full accreditation rating was a relief. Those schools were Sterling and Sully elementaries, Sterling and Simpson middles and Loudoun County and Park View highs.
"We're just thrilled," said Sterling Principal Arlene Glaser. "We looked at everything we do. . . . We were able to focus in on the students who were struggling, and when you align your curriculum with what is being tested, you can move scores up."
Last year, 69.9 percent of students passed math tests at Sterling, causing the school to miss the full accreditation rating by 0.1 percent. This year, 89 percent of students passed math exams. Scores rose in science, history and English, too.
"You have to look at the whole school and how are individual children doing," Glaser said. "You have to look at how teachers are conducting their instructional program, what makes the building tick. It's not the SOL scores as one thing. That should not be the one thing that determines the success of the building."
At Park View, which has been the county's lowest-scoring high school, scores moved up in all four areas. "We put a great deal of effort and time and work into this," said Principal Anne L. Brooks. "Let me underscore that this was a challenge. We met the challenge, and we're working very hard to keep accreditation."
The Fauquier County school system also made one of the largest leaps in Northern Virginia, with 40 percent of its schools improving to fully accredited status for the first time. Twelve of Fauquier's 15 schools participating in the exams have met the benchmark, with just one elementary, middle and high school lagging behind.
Fauquier Superintendent J. David Martin, who just completed his first year on the job, said the improvement has been occurring for several years.
"This is going to sound strange, but we're not in competition with other school districts," he said.
Staff writer Ian Shapira contributed to this report.