Christopher Phillips, principal at Jefferson-Houston School visits a second grade class while walking around the newly built school on September 29, 2014 in Alexandria, Va.  Jefferson-Houston has failed to meet state accreditation standards, but made progress in test scores last year. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Virginia is changing its school accountability system to give parents and community members a better sense of where schools stand in the state’s rating system

The new system gives credit to struggling institutions that are making progress towards benchmarks on state standardized tests and indicates when schools are falling short of benchmarks by slim margins. For schools to be fully accredited, at least 70 percent of students must pass state standardized tests in math, science and history, and at least 75 percent must pass state English exams. High schools must graduate at least 85 percent of seniors.

Previously, schools that fell short — regardless of whether they missed the mark by double-digits or by mere percentage points — were lumped together as “accredited with warning” for three years, losing their accreditation altogether if they failed to bring up scores in the fourth year. Schools with the label were also required to come up with improvement plans, outlining to the state how they planned to boost scores. Schools that automatically lose accreditation face more intensive interventions from the state.

Under the new system, schools that come close to the benchmark will be labeled “partially accredited: approaching benchmark.” And schools that make major improvements will be labeled “partially accredited: improving school.” The exact passage rates and margin of improvement required for both have yet to be set by the state board of education, which is scheduled to vote on the criteria at an Oct. 22 meeting.

Last school year, nearly 69 percent of the 1,826 schools statewide were fully accredited and 29 percent of schools were accredited with warning. In Northern Virginia, 89 percent of schools were fully accredited, and 10 percent of schools were accredited with warning.

The only northern Virginia school without accreditation was the Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria, Va., which has failed to meet state minimum standards several years running. But the school made double-digit gains in the percentage of students who passed English, math and science exams.

[Read more on the Jefferson-Houston School: New principal brings ‘fresh hope’ to struggling Alexandria school]

Principal Chris Phillips, who was hired last year to oversee the K-8 school, said he thought it was fair that the new system would acknowledge a school for making gains even when schools fall short of the benchmark.

“It gives a sense of the growth for the school,” Phillips said. “It’s just a morale booster for our community, our parents and our teachers.”