Only 6.5 percent of Virginia's public schools met the state's standards for performance on achievement tests this spring, according to figures released yesterday, and the results sparked renewed debate on whether the majority of schools can reach the benchmarks before penalties take effect.
Under Virginia's new system of school accountability, one of the toughest in the country, all public schools must attain those targets by 2007 to keep their accreditation.
Although this year's success rate was higher than last year's figure of 2.2 percent, some local school officials and state lawmakers said that the timetable is too demanding and that the Virginia Board of Education needs to adjust the standards, extend the schools' deadline or soften the penalty.
"While we're certainly pleased that we have performed better than last year, I'm still concerned about the large numbers of schools that are not passing," said Fairfax School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech, whose district accounted for 43 of the 116 Virginia schools that met the benchmarks.
Domenech said there will be large numbers of failing schools when the 2007 deadline arrives unless state officials adjust the passing marks on the exams and provide substantially more aid to the weakest schools. "We probably have a much better shot than the rest of the state. But if we don't get a significant amount of help from the state, we're not going to make it in Fairfax, either," Domenech said.
Other local educators as well as members of the state board were more optimistic, noting that students did better on each of the 27 exams than last year, when the testing program began. They said that the program is meeting its primary goal -- improving student achievement -- and that many more schools will reach the accreditation standards after changes are made in the history tests, which gave students the most trouble.
"Frankly, I'm encouraged because we're moving in the right direction," said state board member Mark C. Christie. "We've always said this was going to be a long journey."
The Virginia Standards of Learning exams are being given each year to students in grades 3, 5 and 8 and in high school. Under rules approved by the state board two years ago, a school will lose its accreditation in 2007 if less than 70 percent of its students have passed the tests in each of four basic subjects. The required student passing rate is 50 percent on two of the exams, third-grade history and third-grade science.
In addition to the 6.5 percent of schools that met the test performance targets, 9 percent of schools came close, according to a Washington Post analysis of the figures released by state officials yesterday. Those schools missed because of only one subject -- in 78 percent of the cases it was history -- and came within 20 percentage points of passing.
But more than 80 percent of schools failed in at least two subjects, according to the state's figures. And the Post analysis shows that 21 percent of all schools failed in at least two subjects by a considerable margin, with a student passing rate in those subjects that was less than half the level required.
There also was a strong correlation between a school's success on the tests and its student poverty rate. In the schools that met the state's targets, 6.7 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches -- compared with a poverty rate of 11.3 percent in the schools that are within striking distance, and a poverty rate of 46.3 percent in the schools that had significant trouble in at least two academic subjects.
Some educators have argued that the state board, in setting up the accreditation system, should have made some allowances for schools with large numbers of low-income pupils, who typically score lower on standardized tests because of their home environment.
The tests also carry consequences for students. Starting with the Class of 2004, students will need to pass six of the high school Standards of Learning exams in order to graduate.
Results at individual schools provide a picture of how close students are to meeting the looming graduation requirement. At McLean High School, one of the highest-performing schools in Fairfax and in the state, at least 27 percent of the students would have failed to earn their diploma if the requirement had been in effect this year.
Such figures prompted some officials and parent activists yesterday to question the tests' reliability, as was the case when last year's scores were announced.
"Frankly, as you look at the scores for the whole state, we're beginning to get a reality check about these tests," said Loudoun County School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, whose district had four schools meeting state standards. "I think we need to be very sure that we keep looking at the instrument itself to determine whether it is a truly reliable test and that it is really measuring what we want it to measure."
Although Virginia's tests and curriculum standards have been praised by several national groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, many Virginia teachers and parents have said that the standardized exams -- particularly those in history -- require students to remember too many facts and do not put enough emphasis on analytical skills.
A state board committee is considering including essay questions on the history exams and narrowing the range of material tested.
V. Rodger Digilio, a school board member in Alexandria, said that if there are no major changes in the state's program, "there will probably be a significant number of schools that don't reach the targets, maybe 30 or 40 percent."
But Digilio said he believes the state board is willing to work with districts to change goals that turn out to be impossible. He praised board President Kirk T. Schroder for being sensitive to educators' concerns, noting that the board has allowed immigrant students with weak English skills to wait several years before having to take the exams.
Some educators said they were mostly encouraged that students did better than a year ago. Looking at the student passing rate on each Standards of Learning test at each school, The Post's analysis found there was improvement in 75 percent of the cases.
"We had 36 out of 41 elementary schools that improved on more items than they went down," said Prince William County School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp. "That is very positive." Beauchamp suggested, however, that the state lower its required passing rate in subjects other than reading, writing and math.
In Arlington -- the only Northern Virginia school system beside Fairfax and Loudoun that had schools reaching the state's target -- Superintendent Robert G. Smith said the improvement over last year is a good sign.
Smith, whose district had three schools that met the standard, said that although many Virginia schools are far behind, "we still have time to test the system further."
Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Standards of Learning Scores (This graphic was not available)
CAPTION: High School Scores (This graphic was not available)