Students at nearly half of the District's public schools are entitled to switch schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law, according to test scores released yesterday, but D.C. officials said such transfers will be highly restricted because there are not enough open slots at higher-performing schools.

Sixty-eight of the 149 city schools that were assessed failed for the second year in a row to make adequate yearly progress in reading and math, as measured by the Stanford 9 tests administered in April. Under the federal law, those schools now are deemed in need of improvement, and their students must be offered the option of transferring.

But school officials said many students, especially at the secondary level, cannot be accommodated if they seek transfers. Among the city's 15 traditional high schools, all but three are classified as needing improvement. The remaining three -- Banneker Senior High School, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the School Without Walls -- are magnet schools that have special admission standards and are not open to students who don't meet those criteria. And 18 of the city's 20 traditional middle and junior high schools are in need of improvement.

Children at such schools also are entitled to free tutorial services, and school administrators suggested that secondary school students seek that assistance in lieu of transferring. They said they would try to accommodate as many transfer requests as possible from elementary students, giving the highest priority to low-income children who are identified as the lowest-performing.

"While we made some progress, particularly in the elementary grades, to keep up with No Child Left Behind targets we are going to have to do much better," said Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice, who has led the schools since April.

"At this pace, the District will fall behind, and that is not acceptable," he said. "Everything we are planning for next year is aimed at raising our students' achievement in literacy and numeracy."

Yesterday's announcement was a stark reminder of the immense challenges facing the 64,000-student D.C. school system. The system's overall performance levels on the Stanford 9 exams, particularly in reading, remain among the lowest in the nation, even when compared with other large cities.

The results also illustrated the limited reach of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law in providing options to students stuck in academically troubled schools. A U.S. Department of Education official acknowledged yesterday that the student-transfer provision is not practical in districts where a large percentage of schools are failing.

"This is not a problem you can solve overnight," said Nina Shokraii Rees, deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement. "D.C. should have been preparing way ahead for this possibility."

School districts that do not have spaces for transfers still have options, Rees said, including asking other districts to accept their students, encouraging students to participate in "virtual learning" through the Internet and breaking up existing high schools into smaller "schools within schools" under different management. She also noted the District's federally funded voucher program and its abundance of public charter schools.

The New York and Chicago school systems have had similar problems accommodating transfers. Last month, New York officials announced that transfers would be restricted because of a lack of space at higher-performing schools.

In the Maryland suburbs, 35 of Prince George's County's 197 schools were classified this year as needing improvement, and no other school system had more than 10 schools in that category. Virginia school officials have yet to announce their results for this year.

The performance of the District's student population as a whole is consistent with results in recent years. The District recorded slight increases this year in the proportion of elementary school students who are proficient or better than proficient in reading and math and of high school students who are proficient or better in reading.

John F. Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, an advocacy and research organization based in the District, said the results are sobering but not cause for despair.

"Urban schools can do better, even with the heavy demands of No Child Left Behind," he said. "What this shows is that the D.C. schools are not in good shape."

Jennings, however, praised the District for its rigorous, comprehensive annual testing -- of all grades from third through 11th -- and for setting high, meaningful targets for achievement. The federal law gives the District and each state flexibility to set its own benchmarks for test-score progress.

The test data add urgency to the search for a superintendent to replace Paul L. Vance, who resigned in November. Top city officials are meeting again with two applicants -- Superintendent Eugene T. W. Sanders of Toledo and State Superintendent Robert E. Schiller of Illinois -- who were first interviewed on July 23.

Last year, 15 D.C. schools were on the "in need of improvement" list. But William Caritj, the assistant superintendent for educational accountability and assessment, cautioned that much of the seemingly dramatic increase in that number can be attributed to new, tougher standards to assess progress.

Under new federal rules, various demographic groups -- such as African Americans, disabled children and students not fluent in English -- must meet test-score targets in order for the school as a whole to make adequate progress.

Therefore, some schools that had above-average test scores overall were deemed as not having made adequate progress because their special-education students did not meet the targets. Hardy Middle School and Francis Junior High School, both in prosperous areas of Northwest Washington, are among those schools.

Robin B. Martin, a mayoral appointee to the Board of Education, said that because the adequate yearly progress calculations do not always identify the poorest-performing schools, a transfer will not necessarily help a child. "If you allow someone to transfer, you really don't know if the school they are going to is a better school, even if it is a receiving school," he said.

A school that fails to make adequate progress for four straight years can be subjected, under the federal law, to corrective actions that include replacing its staff, privatizing its management and even closing the school and reopening it as a charter school.

Tommy Wells, who represents Wards 5 and 6 on the D.C. Board of Education, said the federal law imposes new requirements without providing funds to meet them. "It continually forces the school system to try to allocate and prioritize its resources to go to the lowest-performing schools and students, which means that we have less money for the schools that are doing what they are supposed to be doing," he said. "And so it will be difficult to maintain the higher-performing schools."

Susan M. Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, countered that the District's share of money under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 -- the major source of federal funds for public schools -- has risen from $28.3 million in fiscal 2001 to a proposed $55.6 million in fiscal 2005.

For a list of the D.C. schools needing improvement, go to