The percentage of Virginia students passing state math exams plunged this spring, as the commonwealth rolled out more difficult tests in an effort to ensure students are prepared for college.

State officials said they were prepared for the drops, which ranged from 13 to 27 percentage points, since scores also dived when the Standards of Learning, or SOL, tests were adjusted in 2006. Virginia is gearing up to increase the rigor of its reading, writing and science standards next spring.

"Today's release, I'm hoping, is a wake-up call to anyone who believes we have only tinkered around the edges," State Superintendent Patricia Wright said.

Dropping ... with an exception
While tougher tests made scores fall on Virginia's standardized math tests, about the same percentage of sixth-graders -- and sometimes more -- passed the math exams. State school officials said the seventh-grade test had been too difficult before, and some teachers had rushed through sixth-grade prep to get kids ready. Officials described the middle-school exams as "smoothed out" now.
  Algebra 1 Algebra 2 Geometry 3rd grade 4th grade 5th grade 6th grade 7th grade 8th grade
Virginia 75% (-19) 69% (-22) 74% (-13) 64% (-27) 70% (-19) 67% (-22) 74% (+1) 58% (-19) 60% (-22)
Alexandria 62% (-29) 62% (-23) 67% (-10) 57% (-31) 52% (-30) 55% (-32) 61% (+7) 45% (-21) 22% (-40)
Arlington 88% (-10) 84% (-6) 84% (-4) 77% (-17) 81% (-9) 84% (-10) 81% (+16) 58% (-20) 68% (-13)
Fairfax 85% (-11) 79% (-13) 82% (-10) 70% (-24) 77% (-17) 68% (-24) 86% (-2) 75% (-14) 76% (-14)

Northern Virginia school districts were not immune, with Alexandria City Public Schools hit the hardest in the region. As math scores fell dramatically across most grade levels,the percentage of Alexandria eighth-graders passing the math SOL test plunged from 62 percent to 22 percent.

"I mean, overall we had large drops," said Alexandria City Public Schools spokeswoman Kelly Alexander. "I really don't have a reason for that [specific drop]."

The pass rates of Alexandria's third-, fourth- and fifth-graders fell by 30 or more percentage points on math tests, to 57, 52 and 55 percent respectively.

While Fairfax and Arlington counties' scores also dropped, the school districts still managed to outperform the state.

In Fairfax County, the hardest hit grades were third and fifth. Students passing the math exams dropped 24 percentage points, from 94 to 70 percent passing and from 92 to 68 percent, respectively.

In Arlington, decreases in the number of students passing the math exams were between four and 20 percentage points, which Superintendent Patrick Murphy cheered. "While work remains to ensure that all students are mastering this more rigorous content, the results are a strong indication of the continued excellence of Arlington's academic programs," he said.

The state Board of Education in 2009 approved the changes to the math exams, which now include more difficult content and require more problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The questions also require more technological literacy to align with "a 21st-century education," board President David Foster said.

Foster, a former member of the Arlington County School Board, said he was encouraged that more students passed the algebra and geometry exams in the spring than during the first administration of the tests in the fall. Indeed, the Algebra I pass rate increased from 63 percent to 75 percent, while geometry and Algebra II climbed as well. The grades 3 through 8 math exams were not administered in the fall.

"We now begin to see the inklings of what the trend lines are," Foster said.