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Virginia is preparing to add a second, tougher definition of a school's success on the state Standards of Learning exams as it implements a new federal law aimed at making sure all students learn the basics.

State officials acknowledge that some schools judged to be "fully accredited" under state standards may fail to satisfy the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires all schools to show annual improvement in the test scores of students in racial, economic and other subgroups.

The law's goal is for every student to pass state achievement tests by the 2013-14 school year. In Virginia, where students have been taking the SOL exams since 1998, implementing the act will add layers of complexity to the state's ongoing effort to hold schools accountable for students' performance.

Under state standards, a school is fully accredited if 70 percent of its students pass SOL exams in reading, math, history and science, given in grades 3, 5, 8 and in high school. State officials say they will maintain that accreditation system, while implementing a stricter set of standards to gauge progress under the new federal law.

They say the most serious problem will be confusion among parents, students and teachers when a school is "accredited" for state purposes and "failing" for federal purposes.

No Child Left Behind "is a good goal and the logical next step for accountability in Virginia," said Mark C. Christie, president of the Virginia Board of Education. "My concern is the starting point. . . . I'm afraid this will belittle the progress our students have made in closing the achievement gap, because schools we have rated fully accredited will be declared failing."

States are required to submit their plans by Jan. 31 for measuring annual progress under the federal law. The Virginia Board of Education gathered yesterday to consider its plans for meeting the deadline, and it is scheduled to vote Jan. 28. Maryland and the District are drafting proposals, which have not been made public.

Christie said the "adequate yearly progress" marks will be particularly difficult for Virginia schools to meet because the federal law requires using 2001-02 scores to set a starting point for progress. Students in Virginia have made dramatic gains on SOL tests since they were introduced, so the standard already is high.

Under the plans being considered in Virginia, 61 percent of students in each subgroup in every school and school district would have to pass reading tests this spring, and 59 percent would have to pass math tests. A school would be labeled failing if any subgroup of students -- Hispanic students, for instance, or students with limited English proficiency -- did not hit the mark. By the 2004-05 school year, the pass-rate standards in those subjects would rise to 70 percent across all subgroups.

Under the federal law, any school that fails two years in a row would face a series of consequences. Among others, students would be allowed to transfer to better schools, and schools could be required to pay for private tutors. Virginia's state superintendent for instruction, Jo Lynne DeMary, said state officials will have to work to persuade educators that the two sets of standards will not be contradictory. She said the key will be to demonstrate the difference between schoolwide accreditation and the need for progress at the subgroup level.

"We don't want schools to feel like they have to hit multiple targets," she said. "It can dovetail nicely if we become comfortable enough and familiar enough with all of this to be able to peel back the information and use this to see who are the students who are not progressing."

But some local officials said they are only recently getting comfortable with the accreditation system and will have to learn a new vocabulary to go with the new system.

"The state has been putting a lot of pressure on us. Now you've got the federal government putting pressure on us. The question is, what else are we supposed to be doing? And which is supposed to take precedence?" asked Edward L. Kelly, superintendent of Prince William County public schools.

Nancy Sprague, Fairfax County's assistant superintendent for instruction, said she is less worried about the performance of racial and economic subgroups and more concerned about students enrolled in special education and English as a Second Language courses. According to the federal law, 95 percent of all students must be tested, and both groups also must show annual progress.

"With [minorities] and kids who come from poverty -- they don't have a specific educational problem that prevents them from achieving," she said. "Whereas a kid who doesn't speak any English, it's kind of tough to take these tests. And we don't have kids in special education just to have them there."

Dale Rumberger, principal of Westfield High School in Fairfax County, said he and his teachers will work hard to raise SOL scores, but that he cannot worry too long about hitting the new improvement standards.

"I know how hard I work at student achievement. I know how hard the teachers work, and I know how hard the parents work at achievement. I know how hard the students work at it," he said. "To create an artificial barrier to say that some of that doesn't exist, frankly, that's a little insulting."

— Rosalind S. Helderman
Federal Law Pushes Va. to Draft New SOL Standards
Washington Post
Jan. 7, 2003


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