Jo Lynne DeMary, the first woman to serve as Virginia's top public schools official, has announced that she will step down in January.

DeMary, 59, a former elementary school teacher and a graduate of Henrico County public schools, was selected as superintendent of public instruction in 2000 by James S. Gilmore III (R), the governor at the time, and was reappointed by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) in 2002. She has shepherded Virginia's public school systems through the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act and has pushed federal officials to allow Virginia educators more flexibility in complying with the law.

This year, 80 percent of the 1,821 public schools met the benchmarks; last year the rate was 74 percent. And, for the first time since the No Child Left Behind law was enacted, Virginia as a state met the federal standards.

"While thousands of educators have contributed to this success, Dr. DeMary's leadership and vision were essential," Virginia Board of Education President Thomas M. Jackson Jr. said in a statement. "She knew in her heart that accountability would benefit the children of Virginia, and that has made all the difference."

DeMary, who was born in North Carolina and moved to Virginia as a child, has a long history as an educator in the state. She has worked as a teacher in Fairfax County, Henrico County and Richmond and as a principal, director of special education and assistant superintendent in Henrico.

She began her tenure with the Virginia Department of Education in 1994 as assistant superintendent of instruction and supervised the creation of the Standards of Learning tests. The standardized tests, which were introduced in 1998, are used to measure the performance of students statewide under the No Child act.

In a telephone news conference Friday, DeMary said it was important to her to stay in the post to see the class of 2004 graduate because those seniors were the first required to pass six of the Standards of Learning exams, or tests from a list of accepted alternatives, to graduate. Critics of the SOL program had predicted that the requirement would prevent thousands of students from getting a diploma, but the graduation rate remained steady.

"I felt like I had been there and had been a part of setting up the accountability system," DeMary said. "I wanted to stay around . . . for the class of 2004."

Over the past year, DeMary has emerged nationally as a critic of the implementation of the No Child act. She said the exposure came largely as an outgrowth of Warner's focus on national education issues, including his role as chairman of the nonprofit organization Education Commission of the States and his recent chairmanship of the National Governors Association.

DeMary said her job sometimes has been frustrating because she believed federal officials were not properly considering the concerns of state and local officials seeking more flexibility in complying with the No Child law. But she said the situation has improved.

DeMary said she is proud of her work but decided it is time to move on. She said she's not certain what her next job will be but said she probably will stay involved with education.

"I think it's an excellent time for someone with new ideas, new skills to bring to the job," DeMary said. Her successor will be appointed by the next governor after the election this fall.

DeMary said that though she thinks Virginia has made great strides in helping underachieving students, whoever takes over also will have to focus on ensuring that the state is doing enough to help the most talented students excel.

"We've spent a lot of time raising the bar for all our children," DeMary said. "We need to make sure that in our efforts to raise the floor, we've extended all our children."