Virginia's high school graduation rate held steady this year, the first in which students were required to pass state standardized tests to get a diploma.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced yesterday that 72,115 students graduated from high school this year, 94.3 percent of the total number of students enrolled in the class. In the previous five years, the average was 94.5 percent.
Warner credited efforts to identify students struggling with Standards of Learning exams and give them help. He has championed Project Graduation initiatives, which include regional academies to help students in reading, writing and algebra, as well as an online tutorial for the SOL reading test.
"It showed students can perform if they get the extra assistance they need," he said. "When you have a high school diploma in Virginia now, it means the student has mastered certain knowledge in math and English. That will be true whether you come from a school in Richmond or Fairfax or Lee County in western Virginia."
More than 1,075 students passed the reading test after taking the online tutorial, 93 percent of those who tried the program, which was introduced in February. In all, state officials said 2,178 seniors graduated after participating in a Project Graduation program.
When SOL exams were introduced in 1998, critics of the program predicted that 2004 would be a year of upheaval when thousands of students would not graduate because of their test performance.
Instead, the numbers released yesterday confirmed evidence that had emerged throughout the past year, indicating that few would be barred from graduating because of the tests alone. Northern Virginia school districts reported in a Washington Post survey in June that fewer than 100 of their 20,300 seniors fell into that category. Some of those students went on to pass tests in summer school and were included as graduating with their class in figures released yesterday.
Critics also have called attention to the number of students who drop out before reaching their senior year, pointing to statistics showing that about 25 percent fewer students graduate each year than start ninth grade four years earlier. Those numbers are up this year but only slightly.
The Class of 2004 was about 26.5 percent smaller than the ninth grade class that started school in 2000. Over the previous five years, the graduating class has been, on average, 25.3 percent smaller than the ninth grade class of four years earlier.
Andy Block, a testing critic and legal director of Just Children, a Charlottesville-based advocacy group, said the effect of SOL tests on graduation rates remains an open question.
"The numbers tell a pretty good story," he said. "But on the other hand, it's not like things are any better than they were, and we still have a significant number of kids who don't make it."
The Department of Education has hired Virginia Commonwealth University researchers to study this year's graduation results.
To graduate with a standard diploma, students must pass the high school reading and writing exams and four other SOL exams, or tests from a list of accepted substitutes.