Virginia schools will have an easier time meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act if federal officials approve a state request to tweak annual student achievement goals to allow more gradual improvement.
The Virginia Board of Education request, if approved, would have an immediate effect statewide by lowering benchmark passing rates that schools were striving to meet when students took standardized English and math tests in the spring and early summer.
Charles B. Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said that the proposed change would require schools to make incremental but steady progress as they work toward the federal law's aim of having each student proficient in English and math by 2014. Under current rules, target pass rates for the tests remain steady some years and jump dramatically other years.
"This would still provide for increased achievement each year, but at the same time prevent a situation where you have a school that is making progress . . . labeled as a school that is not making enough progress," Pyle said.
After its June meeting, the board submitted the request to the U.S. Department of Education, officials said, and is awaiting a response.
No Child Left Behind requires that students take math and reading tests each year in grades 3 to 8 and in high school. Each school -- as well as subgroups that include low-income students, racial groups and special-education students -- must show annual improvement. In Virginia, student progress is measured using the Standards of Learning exams.
A school with a high number of low-income students that fails to make enough progress must offer children the choice of transferring to a better-performing school.
This year in Virginia, 70 percent of students in each school, as well as each subgroup, must pass the English and math tests for the school to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" under the law. That's a jump from last year, when the target pass rate was 61 percent for reading and 59 percent for math.
Under the board's proposal, the benchmarks would increase over last year's target, to a 65 percent pass rate in reading and 63 percent in math.
The board's plan would continue to raise benchmark pass rates each year, sometimes outpacing earlier targets. For example, current rules call for 70 percent of students to pass each test in the 2006-07 school year. The board's proposal would require 73 percent of children to pass reading tests and 71 percent to pass math tests.
Fairfax County School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said the shift makes sense, particularly because some schools or subgroups might show improvement but still not meet the mark. She noted that some schools missed the goal in past years because one or two children scored just below passing.
"You can just miss the mark by a little bit," Strauss said. "When you're training for a sport you work on incremental increases instead of making these big jumps."
Last year, 451 schools did not make sufficient progress under the federal law.
Because test scores for the 2004-05 school year have not yet been released, it is unclear how many schools would be affected in the next school year if the Virginia Board of Education's proposal passes. If this year's current standards had been applied to last year's scores, 816 schools would have fallen short, Pyle said.
Board member Andrew J. Rotherham stressed that Virginia is not seeking to ease standards but is simply asking to adjust the scale.
"This has to do with looking at where we are and where we need to be, and finding the most sensible course," Rotherham said.
Whatever the outcome, Rotherham said, he is concerned that the state still hasn't heard from the U.S. Department of Education. Virginia releases Standards of Learning scores in August, and local officials will need time to work out the logistics if some schools have to offer students the option to transfer.
"The process with the [U.S. Department of Education] has been dismaying," Rotherham said. "Educators in the state need to know what the rules are."
Pyle said the board initially had sought to set different benchmarks for each subgroup. He said officials at the federal Department of Education have said they are considering whether to allow states to make such a change.