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Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as Most Virginia Schools Fall Short on High-Stakes Tests

Most Virginia Schools Fall Short on High-Stakes Tests

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A month after the Virginia education department reported that most schools in the state flunked the second round of rigorous new tests, many teachers and principals are still shaken, wondering whether it's possible to raise students' scores by the deadline.

Only 6.5 percent of the state's schools met the state's performance benchmarks on the Standards of Learning tests administered last spring. Scores on the tests, first given in 1998, will eventually determine whether schools can keep their accreditation and whether students can graduate.

The new scores were, however, better than last year's, when just 2.2 percent--or 39 of the state's 1,800 schools--met the performance goals on the initial round.

Virginia's Standards of Learning program is being watched nationally as a prime example of the trend toward stricter academic standards and "high stakes" assessments.

The tests are given annually in grades 3, 5, and 8. They are also administered in high school, where students can take them in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade.

Starting in 2007, 70 percent of a school's students in each grade will have to pass tests in four subject areas--English, mathematics, history, and science--or the school will be subject to losing its state accreditation.

By 2004, students will have to pass tests in the four subject areas in order to graduate from high school. On some tests, students only need to answer 50 percent of the questions correctly to pass.

Despite another high failure rate this year, Virginia officials described the second round of test scores as a "marked improvement," noting that students in many grades raised their scores over last year's. On the 5th grade writing test, for example, 93 percent of the students taking the test improved their showings.

Scores Called Misleading

State education leaders also said the overall school passing rates were misleading, because 9 percent of the schools came close to passing all four tests--missing the goal by one subject.

"A lot of schools would have reached full accreditation except for history," Kirk T. Schroder, the president of the state board of education, said after the scores were released this summer. "Given that this is only the second year, I am encouraged. We are clearly moving in the right direction."

But the second round of test scores prompted many principals and teachers to argue that passing scores ought to be lowered to take into account the challenges poorer districts face. Some district leaders in both affluent and disadvantaged areas, meanwhile, contend that the tests in any case are too fact-based and require too much memorization.

In Richmond--one of Virginia's lowest-scoring systems--none of the district's 55 schools passed. But Roger Gray, the president of the Richmond Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said he wasn't surprised.

"You have to question the test," Mr. Gray said. He added that such logistical problems as late delivery of teaching materials hampered teachers' efforts.

"Things came in piecemeal, if they came in at all," he said.

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Page 16

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