Where are the Best Schools in the Washington DC area? What is Fairfax county doing that Loudoun and Prince William are not doing?

Which public schools are the best in the DC area?  Looking at SAT scores, Fairfax county comes out on top with a large range (nearly 500 points out of 2,400) from the highest to the lowest.

Average Combined SAT Scores 2011-2012

Fairfax county 1659

Montgomery county 1651

Arlington County 1641

Loudoun County 1590

Prince William County 1490

Alexandria 1436

Prince George’s county 1274

Washington DC 1184

What I find to be puzzling is the differences in the number of National Merit Scholars semifinalists among these different school districts.   From the Fairfax county public school website, NMS semifinalists are described this way “Approximately 16,000 high school seniors were named National Merit Scholarship semifinalists for 2013. More than 1.5 million juniors entered the 2013 National Merit program by taking the 2011 Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®), which serves as the initial screen of program entrants. The nationwide pool of semifinalists, which represents less than one percent of U.S. high school seniors, includes the highest scoring entrants in each state. The number of semifinalists in a state is proportional to the state’s percentage of the national total of graduating seniors.”  These semifinalists are the top 1% of students nationwide based on PSAT scores, the test given in 11th grade, prior to taking the SAT but very similar to the SAT.

In September 2012, Fairfax county released their list of 227 NMS semifinalists.    While the number is down, it is still a substantial number of students, particularly when compared to surrounding counties.  Since Fairfax county is approximately 4 times the size of Loudoun County, 1.1 million vs. 312,000, with similar demographics,  I would expect that Loudoun County would have approximately one quarter of the number of NMS semifinalists or about 55 students.  Not even close.  Loudoun had only 14, down from a high of 20 in 2009.   One high school in Fairfax, Langley, had as many scholars as all of Loudoun county high schools combined.  What’s happening in Fairfax schools that is not happening in Loudoun schools?  More emphasis on academics?  Something else?  Since Loudoun is the richest county in the nation, it seems unlikely that the difference can be explained away by any demographic differences.

Prince William county is even worse.  The population of Prince William county is one-third of its neighbor Fairfax.  So we might expect them to have somewhere around 75 National Merit scholar semi finalists.  Again, not even close.  They had 10. TEN in total!  Six Fairfax high schools each had that many, without including TJHSST!

Arlington county fared better with 42 named scholars which is about what we might expect  from a county one-fifth the size of Fairfax.

We would expect Montgomery County, MD to have about the same number of NMS semifinalists as Fairfax since the counties are about the same in size, with Fairfax being slightly larger while sharing similar demographics.  Again, it’s not even close.  Montgomery county had only 140 semifinalists.

The reason that these numbers are important is because they reflect how well students are preforming in 11th grade on basic core subjects, math, reading and writing.  It also means millions of dollars in scholarship money only available through the National Merit Scholarship  program.  Most, if not all, National Merit scholars receive scholarship money, often multiple offers from multiple schools.  All northern Virginia schools had fewer scholars this year than in past years.  But the differences between Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties are truly significant and should be alarming to those who live in Loudoun and Prince William.  What is Fairfax doing in their public schools that their neighboring counties are not doing?  What’s causing this large discrepancy?

<Cross posted at thebullelephant.com>


2 thoughts on “Where are the Best Schools in the Washington DC area? What is Fairfax county doing that Loudoun and Prince William are not doing?

  1. Some, but not all of the difference, is due to demographics, particularly with regard to the Prince William County. Prince William counties demographics, racial and economic, tend to mirror the demographics in Manassas and Manassas Park more than they do in Fairfax and Loudoun. Economically disadvantaged, limited English proficiency, Hispanic, and black students tend to score lower on PSAT, SAT, ACT and SOL exams than white and Asian students. Even when you factor out economics and language proficiency, the gap remains. It’s smaller, but it’s still there.

    As Prince William county is a majority minority school division with a large percentage of economically disadvantaged and limited English proficiency students, it’s scores overall tend to be lower as does the number of student who would be National Merit candidates.

    While demographics is part of the story, it’s not the whole story. I think PWCS has hidden behind its demographics for too long and used them as an excuse not to admit to or examine deficiencies in the quality of instruction the school division provides. As admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing it, I don’t expect any improvement anytime soon.

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