Virginia's graduation rate remained virtually unchanged between 2004 and 2005, the second year in which seniors had to pass high school Standards of Learning exams to receive a diploma.
This year, 94.6 percent of seniors graduated from high school, compared with 94.2 percent in 2004. More students this year received an advanced studies diploma, which requires students to take more classes and pass more SOL exams.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said the numbers are proof that Virginia has provided students with the extra help they need to meet the tougher requirements. "I was concerned that there might be this kind of letdown after 2004," he said in a conference call with reporters. "But there was no slacking off. If anything, we've even edged up a little bit."
Still, as in years past, the statistics show that the graduating class of 2005 was about 26.4 percent smaller than the class of students who started ninth grade four years earlier. The figure suggests that many students drop out before they reach their senior year, said Walt Heinecke, an associate professor of research, statistics and evaluation at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and a critic of the standardized tests.
"Things really haven't changed," he said. "I still wonder what happened to the more than 25 percent of kids who started high school in ninth grade and didn't finish 12th grade."
Warner said he believes the number is exaggerated by students who move out of state or to private schools while in high school -- the state is developing databases that would help track students one by one through their four years of high school, but it is not yet online. He acknowledged that the problem of dropouts is "not Virginia unique" and needs attention.
Many SOL critics had predicted graduation rates would fall in 2004, when students were for the first time required to pass six high school tests for a standard diploma and nine for an advanced diploma.
Instead, state officials have said, special tutoring for struggling students has ensured graduation rates have not budged. They said yesterday that 2,639 students, for instance, received extra help as part of Warner's Project Graduation initiatives, which include regional remedial academies and online tutorials.
State School Superintendent Jo Lynne DeMary tied the numbers to recently released statistics that show that math SAT scores rose significantly this year in Virginia, as did the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses.
"One of things you really have to look at . . . is whether these are just moments in time or whether all these data are really telling a story about how our students and how our schools are doing," she said.
The percentage of black and Hispanic seniors who graduated this year rose slightly from 2004, as did the percentage of those seniors who received advanced studies diplomas. However, while more white students receive an advanced diploma, the opposite was true for black and Hispanic students.
An April study commissioned by Virginia's Education Department concluded that while no "dire consequences" resulted from the new SOL requirement for most students, the tests seemed to have had "some negative affects" for minority students.
Warner said, however, that the numbers are moving in the right direction, especially as more minority students enroll in AP courses.
"We're seeing students step up to the plate and succeed," he said. "I think that's a good step in starting to address these issues."