- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

The number of Virginia schools that met state-set standards for full accreditation based on the Standards of Learning tests doubled since last year, education officials said yesterday.
Forty percent of the state's schools or 731 of 1,839 received full accreditation, meaning more than 70 percent of their students passed the SOL tests. Thirty percent, or 558 schools, were provisionally accredited for meeting state standards, meaning scores at these schools either met or exceeded benchmarks set by the state Board of Education. And 23 percent, or 420 schools, were given provisional accreditation, but told they needed improvement.
Seven percent, or 130 schools, received warnings for falling 20 percent below the benchmarks.
In Northern Virginia, 146 schools in Fairfax, 12 in Arlington and five in Alexandria received full accreditation.
"Overall, this is very positive news for Virginia schools the target for all schools [to keep their accreditation] by 2007 seems very achievable now," said Kirk T. Schroeder, president of the state school board.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III described the results as a "tremendous academic breakthrough."
"These outstanding academic results demonstrate that Virginia's public schools are fast becoming synonymous with academic excellence Virginia is showing the nation the way to raise student achievement," he said.
However, critics of the tests and some administrators said they continue to worry about the next hurdle: the requirement that each high school student pass at least six SOL tests by 2004 in order to graduate.
"This is not about a group of schools; it is about individual students," said Mickey VanDerwerker, who heads Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs, the state's most vocal pro-reform group. Even if schools reached the 70 percent passing-rate mark, the 30 percent of students who did not pass would suffer when 2004 rolled around, she said.
Parent Mitch Luxenburg, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said the increase in the number of accredited schools is something of a mixed bag.
"For schools that have historically shown lower numbers, the results are indicative of more rigor, more attention being exercised, and everyone feels positive about that," he said.
But the large number of accredited schools did not necessarily mean children were being better educated, he said. "We would like more reasoning and essay-type questions in the SOLs," he said.
The SOLs are multiple-choice tests in math, science, English and social sciences, administered to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders and in high school.
Local school administrators said they were pleased schools had done well, but also expressed concern about the individual graduation requirement.
"I am very happy for this high school, very happy," said Principal Luther Fennel of Edison High School in Fairfax. His school got full accreditation for the first time this year thanks, he said, to "a group of teachers who have accepted the reality of accountability."
He said his school had introduced a special program in 1999 aimed at helping ninth-graders by providing them with additional support to develop core-content knowledge. The program had become stronger each year, he said, adding that ongoing discussions between teachers and students had also helped in reaching the desired goal.
But it is the requirement for individual students to graduate in 2004 that is "the biggest challenge we face the most compelling," he said.
"It is a hard road and a hard journey [in the sophomore class] we still have a number of students we have to make sure don't fall through the cracks," he said.
Principal Margaret May Walsh of Minnie Howard School in Alexandria, which also got full accreditation for the first time this year, said teachers at her school had studied test and academic data on students dating as far back as February last year, so they had a good idea of what each child needed.
"We built our teachers' workload around who those children really are," she said.
The fact that the school had achieved its goals given its demographics was remarkable, she said. At Minnie Howard School, 51 percent of its students are on free or reduced-price meals, and 18 percent are involved in English as a Second Language program.
Superintendent Rebecca Perry of the Alexandria public schools said she was a supporter of the SOLs and was happy that several of the city's schools had met their goals.
"But the issue is not whether the schools are accredited. I am extremely worried about what happens to the 30 percent of students who do not pass," she said. "Seventy percent is not good enough we need to reach 100 percent."

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