- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

RICHMOND Nearly two-thirds of Virginia's public schools earned full accreditation based on mandatory state tests in the last school year, an increase from 40 percent a year ago, the state Department of Education said yesterday.
The department said that 1,175, or 64 percent, of the state's 1,830 schools performed well enough on the 2001-2002 Standards of Learning exams to be fully accredited. That's up from 731 schools last year.
Schools receive full accreditation when at least 70 percent of students pass SOL tests, or state-approved substitute tests, in each of the four core subject areas English, mathematics, science and history-social studies.
"This is a watershed year for our public schools," Gov. Mark R. Warner said. "Virginia's teachers and principals are showing the nation how to raise student achievement."
Mark Christie, president of the State Board of Education, said schools have made steady progress since 1997-1998, when only 2 percent were fully accredited after the first round of testing.
"What this proves is that when you base accreditation on student achievement, you get more student achievement," Mr. Christie said. "The reason students are doing better not just on SOLs, but on other tests as well is that they are learning more. That's why we're getting these gains."
However, a leading critic of the school accountability program said adjustments in the last year contributed to "accreditation inflation." Among those adjustments were lowering cut scores for the history SOLs and allowing students who barely fail an SOL exam to immediately retake it, rather than wait for the next round of testing.
"Each year, the formula changes just a little," said Mickey VanDerwerker, founder of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs.
She also said students have now had enough practice on SOL exams to become better test takers. "Whether they are learning more is questionable," she said.
Jo Lynne DeMary, state superintendent of public instruction, said the impact of last year's adjustments has not been quantified, but would likely be negligible. She also disagreed with Mrs. VanDerwerker's theory about test-taking skills.
"As a teacher, that doesn't make any sense to me," she said. Students may be gaining confidence as they become more familiar with the format, "but they can't do well on these tests unless they know the material," she said.
The new accreditation figures show that 14 percent of the schools were rated "provisionally accredited meets state standards," meaning they met annual progress benchmarks. Last year, 30 percent of schools were in this category.
Seventeen percent of schools came within 20 percentage points of meeting the standards, down from 23 percent a year ago. Those schools were given provisional accreditation, but were cited as needing improvement.
Eighty-five schools 5 percent of the state's total were accredited with warning because they were more than 20 percentage points shy of the benchmarks in at least one of the four core subjects. Richmond had the most , 23, in this category. A year ago, 7 percent of schools statewide were accredited with warning.
"The success of principals and teachers in raising student achievement is marked not only by the increase in the number of schools reaching full accreditation, but also by the decrease in the number of schools in the lowest accreditation categories," Miss DeMary said.
Schools that are accredited with warning are required to undergo an academic review by a team of Department of Education specialists, and each school must submit a three-year improvement plan.
Beginning in 2007, schools that fail to meet standards will lose accreditation.

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