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Most Virginia schools fall short of federal achievement standards

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More than three out of five Virginia public schools this year failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks — a development that prompted education officials in a state with some of the nation's highest-performing school districts to renew criticism of the George W. Bush-era standards.

Just 38 percent of Virginia's 1,839 schools made adequate yearly progress (AYP) last year under provisions of the law. Ninety-seven percent of Virginia school divisions also failed to meet standards based on student performance on standardized tests, according to the figures released Thursday by the Virginia Department of Education.

For a second consecutive year, Virginia as a state did not meet the annual benchmarks.

Individual Virginia schools and school districts were expected to have more than 86 percent of students pass reading tests and 85 percent of students pass math tests — up from benchmarks of 81 percent and 79 percent, respectively, last year. The benchmarks include students in subgroups based on race, income, English proficiency and disabilities.

The benchmarks are becoming increasingly stringent in advance of 2014, by which time all students are expected to be proficient in reading and math.

Even Fairfax County Public Schools, consistently ranked among the top systems in the country, failed to make adequate yearly progress in 2011 after meeting the benchmarks the previous two years.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright said Thursday the goals of the law were "laudable" but criticized them as "not a basis for a workable accountability system."

"Accountability is not advanced by arbitrary rules and benchmarks that misidentify schools" in need of improvement, she said.

The Virginia results were released just days after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that states could apply for waivers from key portions of the act. Mr. Duncan has estimated that more than 80 percent of schools will fall short of the goal this year, and applications for waivers or expressions of intent to apply for waivers already have come from a handful of states — including Virginia.

The waiver system will free states from many of the law's mandates, including the "failing" school designation, if the states demonstrate real reform and a high bar for student achievement.

States can get waivers in part by demonstrating they are reforming standards to more accurately measure student progress, and Ms. Wright on Thursday indicated Virginia would work toward such a goal.

"During the coming weeks, I will begin a discussion with the state board on creating a new model for measuring yearly progress that maintains high expectations for student achievement, recognizes growth — overall and by subgroup — and accurately identifies schools most in need of improvement," she said.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale said that educators in his district are focusing on how much students in subgroups improve on the state's Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, which measure performance in subjects such as English, math, science and history based on state-approved standards, among other assessments.

In the past five years, math and reading scores in all subgroups have improved, Mr. Dale said.

"I think when you look at it school-by-school, it's difficult to make the case that this is an adequate way to measure achievement," said Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier of the current federal standards.

Wayde Byard, a spokesman for Loudoun County Public Schools, agreed.

"This is obviously now an invalid measure," he said.

As a school division, 92 percent of Loudoun students passed reading and 89 percent passed math on state SOL tests, Mr. Byard said.

"In what alternate universe are 92 percent and 89 percent failing?" he asked. "We'll use it as a learning tool, but as a measure of how we're doing as a school division, it really has no validity."

Loudoun was one of a handful of Northern Virginia jurisdictions that did not meet the federal benchmarks. Others included Arlington County, Prince William County and the city of Alexandria.

"The bottom line is it doesn't have much to do with student improvement. … The way the NCLB has been implemented is atrocious," said Morton Sherman, superintendent for Alexandria City Public Schools.

As a result of the higher standards, 342 schools that made AYP in the previous cycle did not this time around, according to the state education department.

Forty percent, or 292, of the state's 730 Title I schools, which provide educational services to low-income children and are the focus of most of the law's accountability provisions, made AYP.

Such schools that don't meet benchmarks in a subject area for two or more straight years are identified for improvement. Those schools must offer students the option of transferring to a higher-performing school, provide supplemental educational services or offer tutoring free of charge to eligible children who request it, for example.

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