Test Scores Hold Mixed Results for Pr. William

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008

An analysis of new college entrance and state exam scores indicates that Prince William County's schools are still struggling to catch up to those in neighboring districts on the SAT. But the 73,000-student system is gaining on the state Standards of Learning tests and is significantly narrowing a gap between Hispanics and whites in reading.

Additionally, the SOL scores show mixed results in third-grade math, a subject that has churned up parent and School Board scrutiny because of the districtwide reform math program called Investigations, which de-emphasizes traditional memorization of basic algorithms.

Prince William has had about 90 percent of third-graders pass the math test for the past three years. But the percentage of those reaching the "advanced" level has dropped from 56 percent in 2006 to 49 percent in the past two years, the period when Investigations was implemented.

School officials praised their Title I elementary schools -- those that use federal funds for low-income students -- for meeting the No Child Left Behind benchmark of adequate yearly progress.

In an interview, Pam Gauch, associate superintendent for student learning and accountability, said the school system probably saved a significant amount of money with the successful performance of its Title I schools.

Had some of the previously failing Title I schools not met benchmarks this year, Prince William would have been forced by the federal government to send some of its failing students to other county schools, which could have increased class sizes or forced the extension of bus routes.

"The success goes to the teachers. They should be very proud of what they've done," Gauch said.

Prince William's surging Hispanic population also made strides, largely because new testing rules allow some students to submit portfolios of assignments instead of taking the standard multiple-choice exam.

For instance, the gap in the percentage of white and Hispanic students passing the reading exam dropped from 19 points to 13; Hispanics shaved down the difference in math from 16 to 15 percentage points.

But for some parents, the most intriguing aspect of the SOL results lies in elementary math. Greg Barlow, who has been spearheading a vocal opposition to the system's new math program, said he was disappointed that the number of students reaching advanced, rather than merely "proficient," has not risen since Investigations was introduced.

"If you're not excelling at the top, then you're just staying at the status quo. You're losing," Barlow said. "You're not giving students enough instruction to compete in the world market."

The Prince William School Board is scheduled to meet next month to review Investigations, and the SOL test scores could figure heavily into its decision-making.

Gauch said she expects to see better performance in future years but had been worried that performance would dip, given the controversy and parent outcry in recent months. "I thought there was a good chance the scores could go down based on all the confusion with teachers and parents at home," Gauch said, adding that schools are now using Investigations along with traditional instruction.

On the SAT, Prince William improved slightly, nudging its average score to 1488 from 1486, out of a possible 2400. The county's average math score rose three points to 500, reading dropped a point, and writing stayed the same. However, Prince William's average SAT score is much lower than its neighbors': 1654 for Fairfax County, 1621 for Arlington County and 1575 for Loudoun County.

Among Prince William's 10 high schools, those with the smallest numbers of minorities and economically disadvantaged students continued to have the highest scores. Schools such as Potomac and Freedom continued scoring the worst, with Potomac's average SAT score dropping the most: 55 points.

Brentsville District High School in Nokesville had the highest score, 1595, with the second-highest jump of 21 points; Osbourn Park near Manassas was the second-best with 1556, posting a modest improvement; and Battlefield High School in Haymarket had an average score of 1540, a leap of 57 points.

Amy Ethridge-Conti, Battlefield's principal, said the school's success didn't rely on one mechanism but rather a variety of tools, including paying for freshmen to take practice tests resembling the PSAT and delivering a presentation of the results to parents.

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