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When HSA Test Scores Go Missing, Students Pay Price

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

As we debate the merits of allowing some students to do projects in lieu of passing Maryland's High School Assessment exams, there is an 800-pound gorilla standing in the corner giggling about lost scores.

My son's guidance counselor reports that her mailbox is jammed with letters from concerned parents about missing scores. Apparently the state loses scores quite frequently. In addition, passing scores that appear on a report from an earlier year disappear the next!

The procedure to find the scores requires searches of the school's records, and requesting an investigation at the state level for tests taken in high school and at the county level for scores on tests such as Algebra I, commonly taken in middle school.

I don't have a major problem with these exams. But if the state cannot reliably manage the score data, how is it fair for it to hold students' graduation hostage?

Sally Kelly

Bethesda

Ron Peiffer, the state's deputy school superintendent, said that he was aware of only two such lost scores in the past year. He said they were the result of mishaps at schools and were remedied. "In one instance, the school inadvertently packed a student test booklet in a box with other test booklets that were not to be scored," he said. "Excess test booklets are shipped to schools each administration in the event a booklet gets damaged or becomes unusable. The damaged booklets are returned in the 'do not score' box to the test vendor along with unused test booklets. The good booklets are put in boxes marked for scoring. A little detective work tracked that booklet down."

Peiffer said, "We are very worried about making sure a student will get credit for taking a test and have multiple checks and balances to make sure no student result disappears. We have been administering state testing since the late 1970s or early 1980s and have perfected our procedures in those decades since then."

If anyone has first-hand information to the contrary, let me know.

Dear Extra Credit:

I could not agree with you more on the lack of opportunity for many bright lower-income students who miss out or drop out ["With Gifted Education, Access Is Everything," Extra Credit, Nov. 8]. The quality of their local schools and teachers is often far below what it ought to be, especially in certain subjects.

Online classes can help, especially for subjects not taught well or at all in the local schools. Maybe it is good to keep online classes as an option, at least until the schools do a better job.

Access obviously affects students in rural and urban schools, and even in some suburban schools where quality of teaching may be mediocre and where access to high-quality coursework or materials is limited.

D.J. Patrick

Falls Church

You raise a very interesting issue. Online classes do give students in poorly supplied schools an option, but for many of them that will not be enough. They need better teachers to help them delve into the material and understand the concepts. I wonder whether any education reformers have thought of supplying computers to inner-city students, giving them access to online courses and then training the online teachers to excite that interesting slice of students.

Dear Extra Credit:

As a Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology alum who had a sister attend McLean High School and friends who attended other Fairfax County high schools, I can say that for the most part Jefferson is only as different as the student wants it to be [see "A Thomas Jefferson Brain Drain," Extra Credit, Oct. 25; "Thomas Jefferson Isn't For Everyone," Extra Credit, Nov. 15].

Although the school is supposedly for students interested in science and technology and caters the curriculum somewhat toward that end, students are free to sign up for classes that are virtually identical to those taught at every other Fairfax County High School. No one is forced to take a certain number of AP's, or any at all, so the difference really comes down to a few mandatory classes and an eighth period for which students can sign up for academic activities or virtually no activity.

Although many Jefferson students do go to top-tier universities, the top three have always been U-Va., William and Mary, and Virginia Tech for many of the reasons stated in other letters. You might expect that most students would become scientists and engineers, but most students apply to Jefferson mainly because of its reputation, not because they are interested in a science or technology. If that were the case, you would see more Jefferson grads go into the reputable colleges of engineering at Virginia Tech and U-Va. Instead, of the more than 25 percent of the graduating class that went to U-Va., most ended up in the College of Arts and Sciences, not to mention all the students who went to William and Mary, which is a liberal arts school.

Robert Cotten

Vienna

This is a very timely letter, which I received just before U.S. News & World Report declared Jefferson the best high school in America.

School reputations rest more heavily on the quality of the students than the quality of the staff members.

Jefferson teachers are first-rate, but their school would not get anything close to the attention it receives if it were not a magnet with one of the most selective admissions systems in the country.

As you say, the students make it what it is. Whether that situation is good or bad is an interesting topic for future columns.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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