Va. schools: Majority see higher achievement

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Sixty-eight percent of Virginia's public schools and about 26 percent of districts met new annual benchmarks aimed at reducing proficiency gaps between low-performing and high-performing schools, the state Department of Education said Wednesday.

Of the state's 1,836 schools, 1,241 of them met all of the benchmarks in reading, mathematics and graduation, as did 34 of Virginia's 132 school divisions, education officials said.

The annual measurable objectives based on the performance on state standardized tests replace the adequate yearly progress targets created by the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. In June, the state received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for certain provisions of the federal law.

In a news release about the results, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright said the waiver allows education officials to "target school turnaround efforts and resources on those schools where students truly are falling behind."

At least 85 percent of students overall were required to pass standardized reading tests for a school to be considered proficient for the 2011-12 school year. In math 61 percent were required to pass. Rates for each subgroup - including black and Hispanic students, those with disabilities, and English learners - varied.

Based on the benchmarks, education officials are directing 485 schools - or about 26 percent - to develop and implement improvement plans to raise achievement levels for certain races and other subgroups.

Additionally, 36 schools have been designated as "priority" schools, which must use state-approved partners to help design and implement reforms, another 72 "focus" schools must employ a state-approved coach to develop, implement and monitor strategies to improve student performance.

"Relief from unworkable federal mandates is welcome but there must be no retreat from the goal of closing the achievement gap," Gov. Bob McDonnell said in a news release.

Last year, 61 percent of Virginia's public schools and 97 percent of districts failed to meet federal annual benchmarks. As a state, Virginia failed to meet adequate yearly progress in 2010-11 because black, Hispanic, English learners, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities failed to meet targets in reading and math performance. The state also missed its goals in 2009-10.