If Virginia wants permission to opt out of the most vexing parts of No Child Left Behind, it’ll need to produce a more rigorous accountability plan of its own.

That was the message the Department of Education delivered in an April 17 letter in response to Virginia’s request for relief from the federal education law, which requires that all students demonstrate proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in the fall that he would waive portions of the law for states that outline alternative plans and agree to certain reforms.

Eleven states have already received waivers. Virginia submitted its initial application in February and now has until Tuesday to respond to the Education Department’s critique. Maryland and the District also have submitted waiver requests.

The back-and-forth between state and federal governments is an expected part of the application process. Read the Education Department’s letter after the jump.

The federal agency praised Virginia’s “particularly strong” system for changing and upgrading the state’s Standards of Learning and said its accountability system “has the potential to be effective and easily understood” by educators, parents and the public.

The Department had a longer list of criticisms, however.

Many of them echoed concerns already raised by Virginia education advocates who argued that the commonwealth’s plan marked a retreat from one of NCLB’s most important aims: unmasking and addressing achievement gaps among groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities, poor children, students with disabilities and those who are learning English.

Here are some of the Education Department’s key critiques:

Virginia’s current plan does not set ambitious enough achievement targets for its schools.

NCLB requires that 100 percent of students pass state math and reading tests, Virginia’s plan would lower the bar to 75 percent for reading and 70 percent for math.

Those would be static targets. The Education Department urged Virginia to instead set targets that rise over time, and that either aim to cut in half the proportion of non-proficient students or reach 100 percent proficiency over the next six years.

Virginia’s current plan does not do enough to hold school systems accountable for the performance of traditional student subgroups.

Under NCLB, Virginia has to report on the performance of seven student subgroups based on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic and disability status. If any one of those subgroups fails to meet achievement targets, the school is flagged as needing extra help and can be subject to a variety of sanctions.

Under Virginia’s plan, that information would continue to be reported, but it wouldn’t be used to determine which schools are successful and which need help.

Instead, a school’s annual report card would show information about how three newly defined minority student groups — “proficiency gap groups,” in the state’s lingo — are faring.

The new groups are set up so that the test scores of a student who falls into more than one traditional subgroup — a poor black student, for example — would be counted only once.

Group 1 includes all students with disabilities, students with limited English proficiency and poor children. Group 2: African American children not already in Group 1. Group 3: Latino children not already in Group 1.

The Education Department expressed concern that these new groupings would mask gaps among traditional subgroups.

Virginia needs to be more clear about how it will make sure that student growth — i.e. test scores or other measures — are a “significant factor” on teacher and principal evaluations.

In the fall, all school systems in Virginia have to start using new teacher evaluation systems that they develop based on guidelines put forth last year by the state Board of Education.

The guidelines “recommend” that student academic progress should account for 40 percent of the evaluation. It’s not clear how many school systems will adhere to that recommendation.