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Letter to the Editor

November 07, 2009

Paper doesn't do a world-class job when reporting schools' test scores



To the editor:

When it comes to providing an accurate accounting of the academic performance for Washington County Public Schools (WCPS), The Herald-Mail does anything but a world-class job.

The majority of the stories regarding performance seem to be sourced from nothing more than press releases and reports issued by the school system. Further investigation or verification to put the results into a proper context is just not done. These stories are then followed up by unsigned editorials from someone at The Herald-Mail praising the school system and endorsing its self-proclaimed world-class status. That, in a nutshell, is how the myth of a world-class public school system, born out of a controlled state of ignorance, is allowed to live on.

To illustrate this with a specific example, this letter will focus on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) results for last year. First though, there is one very important thing to know about the SATs that neither The Herald-Mail nor WCPS has really told the public.

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The most important factor to consider when comparing SAT results is the percentage of students taking the test. Generally, a group with more students taking the test means that there is a wider range of academic ability within the group, and this usually results in lower scores. To put this into perspective, Washington County had only about 50 percent of its seniors take the SAT last year as opposed to about 70 percent of the seniors across the state of Maryland. With this being the case, Washington County should have scored significantly higher than the state average just to be considered equal to the state. To put it another way, if Washington County had 70 percent of its seniors take the SAT, the scores for the county would most likely have been significantly lower than they were.

A second very important point to understand is that Washington County Public Schools has proclaimed itself to be world class. It has continually made this claim in writing by having the slogan "Ensuring World Class Education for All Students" in the footer of its stationery. So if this is the case, and the school administration is ensuring a world-class education for all students, then the academic results should be able to back this up. The SAT results for the past school year certainly don't indicate that the college-bound students in Washington County are receiving anything close to a world-class education. Unfortunately, The Herald-Mail's stories on the SAT didn't even come close to putting into perspective how poorly the students of Washington County are prepared for college. Some of the missing highlights, or lowlights, are:

o The average SAT scores for this past year appear to be all-time lows for Washington County in three out of the four areas (math, writing and combined) and just one point away from an all-time low in reading.

o The story mentioned the 28 point one-year drop in the scores for Washington County, but it didn't make any effort to put this into proper perspective. Maryland experienced only a one-point drop, while nationally, there was only a two-point drop.

o Washington County's average SAT scores were 17 points lower than the average for Maryland. Even more indicative, though, is the fact that Washington County's best students performed even worse when compared to Maryland's best. The scores where the top 25 percent of students begin were 80 points lower in Washington County compared to the rest of the state.

o The Herald-Mail allowed school officials to dismiss the 28-point drop by saying that it was due to more students taking the test. Washington County's increase in test takers last year was only 49 students, or 1 percent. To have the same percentage of students taking the SAT as Maryland did, there would have had to be an increase of 350 students.

In the past, when the issue of the low percentage of students taking the SAT came up, BOE members punted this by saying that many Washington County graduates didn't take the SAT because they were going to go to Hagerstown Community College instead, and HCC didn't require the SAT. That seems odd to say that Washington County graduates choose their local community college more than the other students in the state choose their local community college. If one looks at the latest course offerings from HCC, though, the answer might be pretty clear why they did. This fall over 40 percent of the English courses and over 70 percent of the math courses offered at HCC were at a remedial level. So why is it that, with the assurance of a world-class education for all students, the taxpayers of Washington County have to pay for a high school education twice - once in the public schools and then again through remedial courses at HCC?

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