Black students in Fairfax County are consistently scoring lower on state standardized tests than African American children in Richmond, Norfolk and other comparatively poor Virginia districts, surprising Fairfax educators and forcing one of the nation's wealthiest school systems to acknowledge shortcomings that have been masked by its overall success.

Even within Fairfax schools, black elementary school students are outperformed on reading and math tests by whites and some other students, including Hispanics, poor children and immigrants learning English.

The statewide disparity occurs among all age groups except the middle-school grades, but it is most pronounced at the elementary level, according to Virginia Department of Education data analyzed by The Washington Post. Black third-graders in Fairfax ranked 91st among more than 125 Virginia districts in reading and 69th in math in tests taken last year. Fifth-graders ranked 40th in reading and 71st in math.

"Something is broken with the way we teach a segment of the population," said John Johnson, education chairman for the Fairfax County NAACP and the father of two students in county schools. "Despite all the things we have at our disposal, our children are being outperformed by people like us -- or people with fewer resources."

The Fairfax County schools are among the most respected in the country, and their quality has long been a draw for families. Nearly 90 percent of public school graduates go on to college or other schools. The district's SAT scores were the best in the county's history last year and 8.4 percent above the national average.

In a district so accustomed to being on top, Fairfax leaders hadn't noticed that many black students were not making the grade.

"We had a perception that our performance is higher than the data would indicate, in part because of the accolades our schools get," said Superintendent Jack D. Dale. "Until you peel back the onion a little bit, you may not see areas where you are not as successful."

The standardized tests taken by Virginia students are used to measure performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires school systems to present overall performance data as well as the scores of racial groups, poor children and disabled students.

In Fairfax, 59 percent of black third-graders passed last year's state reading test. By comparison, 74 percent of black third-graders in Richmond passed the test and about 71 percent in Norfolk. Statewide, the passing rate for black children was 67 percent. About 79 percent of all Fairfax students passed.

Fairfax's black third-graders did better in math, with a 75 percent pass rate. But 86 percent of their peers in Richmond and 80 percent in Norfolk passed. Fairfax did not do well against other Northern Virginia districts, either. In Prince William and Loudoun counties, 84 percent of black students passed and in Arlington, 81 percent.

A look at Maryland test scores required under the federal law reveals no similar pattern of African Americans in well-heeled suburbs lagging behind peers in lower-income urban districts. Black students in Montgomery County, a district that in many ways mirrors Fairfax, are well ahead of black students in urban Baltimore in standardized reading and math tests.

District students take another standardized test, and their performance cannot be compared with test scores of students in Maryland or Virginia.

Fairfax educators are still trying to figure out how a school system that helps so many children thrive has fallen short for one group. Thousands of immigrant children who cannot speak English when they enter Fairfax schools learn the language in sophisticated literacy programs and passed the third-grade reading test at a 70 percent rate. High-poverty Fairfax schools have extra resources for remediation. Yet too many black students are not getting the help they need.

The result has been a school system that is uncharacteristically off balance.

Fairfax school officials readily acknowledge that they don't know how to solve the problem or what has caused it. They even went to Richmond twice last year to study that city's success. While black student performance has shown modest improvement over the past three years in Fairfax, it has risen greatly in Richmond.

But the challenge is different in Fairfax, where there are 17,600 black students, or about 11 percent of the school population. Schools in Richmond and Norfolk are majority black, so helping those students does not require focusing on a particular racial group.

In addition, some educators say they fear that teaching to the test -- which Richmond readily acknowledges it does -- would not work in Fairfax because the vast majority of students are passing and school officials don't want to give up the creativity that comes with current teaching methods.

"We run the risk of losing our community who think, 'This is not what I want for my child,' " said Ann Monday, assistant superintendent for instructional services.

The achievement gap between Hispanic and black students and their white and Asian peers is among the toughest challenges facing schools nationwide. Fairfax, like most school districts, has historically worked to close that gap.

The search for ways to boost black test scores has led Fairfax to an unlikely teacher, Richmond. Educators want to learn how the historically troubled district accomplished a major academic turnaround in recent years.

Poverty is one of the key reasons many minority children struggle in school. Children from low-income homes tend to have fewer books and generally are read to less often than those in middle-class homes.

Although poverty is a challenge in Fairfax, it is an even bigger hurdle in Richmond. In Fairfax, 43 percent of black children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, a common indicator of poverty. Overall, 20 percent of the county's students qualify. In Richmond schools, where nearly 90 percent of students are black, about 69 percent qualify for subsidized meals.

That means something going on in Richmond schools is making a difference.

"It's not about the kids," Monday said. "It's about us preparing the kids for those tests."

Consider Woodville Elementary School, in one of Richmond's high-crime neighborhoods. Nearly all the students are black; nearly all are poor. More than once, the school has been locked down because of gunfire outside.

But for Principal Rosalind C. Taylor, the message for her students is simple: "If you don't get it, you work until you do."

Woodville students take mini-tests each week to make sure the material is sinking in. If it isn't, there is tutoring before school, after school and on Saturdays. One day last month, four Woodville fifth-graders barely failed a reading test in preparation for the statewide Standards of Learning. The next afternoon, an assistant principal was planning extra help for them.

Changes in Richmond came partly in response to the No Child act, signed into law in 2002. Struggling systems such as Richmond had to make big changes to avoid being labeled a failing district.

Fairfax didn't have that pressure.

In Fairfax, most children do well no matter their background. As the largest school system in the Washington area and the 12th-largest nationwide, it is a diverse district ethnically and socioeconomically. Children from affluent families sit alongside poor children and immigrants learning English. There are about 164,000 students.

Richmond has about 24,700 students, Norfolk about 37,000. Last year, Fairfax spent about $11,200 per pupil, according to the Virginia Department of Education, and Richmond spent about $12,200. About $9,000 was spent on each Norfolk student.

Some black children in Fairfax excel academically. The number of black students in Advanced Placement classes has been rising, and the district is working to increase the number of blacks in gifted programs and the elite math and science magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

"We made the assumption that our program was so full and so rich that our students would learn, and most of them did," Monday said. "We said, 'We need to do better,' but we had a good deal of students who were passing right out of the blocks."

Beyond the testing and tutoring, there is another, more elusive ingredient in Richmond's recipe for academic success: demanding it from all students.

Harvard University researcher Ronald F. Ferguson surveyed students from 95 schools in 10 states, asking why they worked hard in school. Students of all races said college was a motivator, but more blacks and Hispanics, compared with whites, checked "My teachers encourage me to work hard."

Fairfax School Board member Stephen M. Hunt (At Large) is among those who worries that society and the schools aren't giving students enough of that kind of motivation.

Hunt recently met a black mother whose daughter is in the fifth grade at a Reston area school. During a meeting with a teacher, the woman said, she was told her daughter had problems but was improving. But the girl ended up with low grades.

Hunt doesn't know what that teacher said or what the mother heard, but he is discouraged that the result wasn't a clear plan to push the child to do better.

"The teacher might have been attempting to let the mom know that things were not well. Nobody wants to say, 'Your daughter's practically illiterate,' " Hunt said. "The perception of the mom was that there was no urgency."

At Woodville in Richmond, each child will say he expects to pass the next test. Students begin each school day with an affirmation. "I am somebody. I am somebody," they chant. "Here at Woodville, I will dress for success to be the best. I will come to school to learn, and I will learn."

Percy Norwood, who is black and whose son is a senior at Fairfax County's Centreville High School, is among those concerned about the lagging test scores. He is convinced that hiring more minority teachers would boost performance among black children. "People of different races bring different perspectives to the table," he said.

Norwood said he recently walked into a high school history classroom, and "all I saw was pictures of former presidents and white folks."

"The teacher has no idea what message that sends to [black] kids," Norwood said. "They are thinking, 'They aren't teaching about me in here.' "

The NAACP's Johnson and other African American leaders said the black community in Fairfax has to push that "I will learn" attitude, too. "The culture is somehow we've allowed ourselves to believe that being smart is not cool," he said.

This spring, two Fairfax schools have invited black parents to talk about their children's school performance. Carolyn Smith, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Mill Elementary in the Alexandria section of the county, led one of those meetings.

Smith, who is African American, has seen black children in her classroom struggle. Still, she was nervous when she decided to bring black parents and black teachers together.

"As African American teachers, we were afraid to address the issue because people would perceive it as being negative," Smith said. "But we have to throw all that away and say, 'We have to face this.' "'

At the same time, Fairfax school officials are reshaping what is happening in elementary classrooms.

Fairfax has added training sessions to help teachers connect with every child. A new computerized system helps assess each child's progress and pinpoint where the student is falling short.

Increasingly, children meet in small groups with others who have a similar mastery of a subject. Several schools have teaching coaches and special teams to identify struggling students and help them progress.

Some schools that have focused on lagging test scores have shown progress. At Hybla Valley Elementary School in the Alexandria section of the county, 57 percent of black third-graders passed the reading test in 2003. Last year, 71 percent passed.

This spring, students across Virginia have been taking the annual Standards of Learning tests. Schools chief Dale said he wants all of Fairfax's students -- including the black children -- to be among the tops in the state.

"We ought to be in the top 5 percent in the state across all subcategories," Dale said. "The question is how we do it. We all believe we can, and we should."

Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.