Students in substandard public schools in Alexandria and three other Virginia school districts will be offered quicker access to private tutoring, under a special waiver to the No Child Left Behind law announced yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education.

The exception made for Virginia on a trial basis marks the first such waiver offered to any state.

"This is a step in the right direction," said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. "It represents a willingness to allow states to try things that are a little bit different than what is described in the law." Virginia educators have been pushing for more flexibility in implementing the complex federal education law for months.

The decision required Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to formally waive one of the law's requirements. Although Spellings has worked with states to find flexibility in No Child Left Behind in other ways, this was the first outright waiver.

The federal law calls for yearly testing of students in grades three through eight and requires that schools show yearly progress in improving scores or face consequences. Subgroups of students -- including ethnic minorities, disabled students and students with limited English skills -- also must make progress each year, and all students must pass math and reading tests by 2014.

Under the law, poorly performing schools that fail to make adequate progress for two consecutive years must allow students to transfer. Schools that do not hit the mark for a third year must then pay for private tutoring. With this agreement, four Virginia districts would be allowed to offer tutoring first, before allowing transfers in the third year.

Last year in Virginia, 1,181 transferred out of their schools because of No Child Left Behind, and 2,111 received tutoring services.

Besides Alexandria, three other districts -- Henry County, Newport News and Stafford County -- were granted the waiver. In Alexandria, officials said the new flexibility would affect no schools this year but could affect two schools next year if they fail to improve their test scores. Pyle said six schools in the other districts would take part.

Virginia educators have argued that it is more logical to give students access to private after-school and weekend academic help before disrupting school communities with transfers. They also said that generally the best-scoring students choose to transfer anyway, rather than those who need help most.

"The tutoring can be directly tied to areas where students are not achieving," said Cathy David, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Alexandria.

Federal officials said they are concerned that too few students take advantage of private tutoring when their schools are required to offer it. Of 2 million students eligible nationwide, only 200,000 are enrolled in tutoring programs, said Tom Luce, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Education Department.

He said federal regulators hope the Virginia schools chosen for the pilot program will find ways to increase student participation that can then be shared nationally. In a letter to Virginia officials, Spellings said that increase is a condition of her waiver.

"We're finding across the country that schools are telling us that these tutoring programs and afternoon sessions are making a big difference," Luce said in a conference call with reporters.

Virginia initially asked to be allowed to implement the change at all of its eligible schools, and Pyle said state officials have not given up their hope of getting approval to do so.