Students at Prince William's Pennington School Get Perfect Scores on SOL Exams

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

At the high-performing, dress-code-enforcing Pennington School in Prince William County, longtime Principal Joyce Stockton says only one or two students a year score perfectly on all of their multiple state exams.

In the most recent round of results from state Standards of Learning tests taken in 2008, Stockton was surprised: Nine students scored a flawless 600 on each of their tests, including math, civics and English.

Two of those nine students happen to be best friends, Kristina Johnson, 14, and Brittany Parowski, 13, each of Bristow. (And, not to brag too much about Kristina and Brittany, but they also happen to be writing a fantasy novel.)

"I think it's pretty awesome I got perfect," Brittany said. "It's hard to think about it -- you try to focus on what you're learning now."

Said co-author Kristina: "Usually I'll get 600 on most of them, and I'll get a 596 on one test because I missed one question. This year, I was so happy. . . . I pay attention for most of the classes, but I zone out a little, too, because everyone does."

Schools, of course, don't pressure students to score perfectly on all of their exams. But the success of the Pennington Nine shows how, at the very least, more educators in Virginia are pushing students to achieve the "advanced" benchmark, or a minimum score of 500 on the SOL tests, rather than merely a score of 400, or "proficiency." Many educators think the lower benchmark is too easy.

But schools nationwide have been furiously trying to get their students to pass the exams with proficient scores to meet the federal No Child Left Behind law's "adequate yearly progress" benchmarks. If some schools, such as elementary schools that receive federal funds for economically disadvantaged children, fail to meet those goals year after year, they can face several consequences, such as being forced to pay for tutors or allowing their students to transfer to other schools.

Pennington, however, is not the kind of school that's in danger of failing to meet No Child Left Behind's basic goals or that struggles to close achievement gaps among minority groups. The Manassas area school, one of the Prince William system's two "traditional" campuses that require students to wear uniforms and engage in community service, has low percentages of black and Hispanic students, and only about 6.5 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, according to the school system's most recent demographic data.

Prince William officials did not immediately have figures on which other county schools might have had students with perfect scores on several SOL exams. But the county's other traditional school, Porter, in Woodbridge, reported that 11 students got straight 600s. Those students are: Samantha Nason, Kelechi Kwanevu, Maria Kruger, Aran McDermott, Hannah Esmacher, Catherine Franklin, Caroline Howard, Marlee Moore, Kathryn Sheridan, Ronald Smith and Joshua Weaver.

Pennington accepts students based on a lottery. About 200 students apply annually across all grades, and about 120 are admitted. Most applicants are trying to get one of the 75 open spots each year for first grade; there are about five or six openings each year for second through eighth grades, according to the school's Web site.

"Parents, they think it's a private school, but it has some of the same concepts," she said, adding the caveat that she thinks all the county's schools are excellent. "If you look at our middle school, we have about 200 kids -- that's where the intimacy comes. Teachers can really establish an excellent relationship with each child."

It was while Pennington teachers were analyzing the SOL results in October that they realized several students scored 600s on all their exams in the spring.

"Most of the time, you go through the scores and see who needs remediation and who needs more or less support," reading specialist Donna Notarantonio said. "But what we found were some kids who scored perfect 600s. That's very hard to do."

So, as a reward, Pennington established the "600 Club" for those students. (The big prize: a free, one-time celebratory lunch from Chick-fil-A, along with a free backpack bearing Pennington's name.) The inductees range from current fourth- to eighth-graders. Aside from Kristina and Brittany, they are Samuel Case, Evan Nguyen, Razi Rais, Hannah Wied, Margaret Story, Christy Cosman and Emily Wood.

Stockton said the school draws on several strategies to keep scores high: It has a period for remediation and enrichment during the day, as opposed to before or after school. A Web-based program called "Study Island" drills students on SOL questions and activities that reinforce state curriculum. And the school pays heavy attention to which questions students get wrong.

"There's more focus on individual data to see where their strengths are and meeting with teachers to disaggregate the data," Stockton said. "What questions did they miss? What are they not reaching?"

One of Pennington's biggest gains has occurred among Kristina and Brittany's peers in the eighth grade on the SOL reading exam. The percentage of students with advanced scores on that exam jumped to 55 percent last year from 29 percent in 2007.

To Kristina and Brittany, who are working on a novel inspired by the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, the reading test is one of the easier exams. In interviews, their parents say they taught their children from an early age that reading was important, with regular trips to the library.

"But I feel like her scores are more of a reflection of the teachers' preparation. The most important thing I've done is that I've chosen to be a stay-at-home mom, so I could spend time with her," said Kathy Johnson, 45, who is Kristina's mother. "I also think the uniforms possibly might help -- there's no competition for clothing."

Mark Parowski, Brittany's father, said that his daughter spends ample time watching television or playing on the computer but that her parents have also nudged her to read more. He also said he thinks that Pennington's smaller class sizes and focus on community service help.

Kristina said she thinks more students could score high on their exams if they would do something very basic: "If you pay attention, it should be easy," she said, adding one other gem: "Stay calm. Try not to treat the tests like your life depends on it."

But Kristina and Brittany can't luxuriate too long as members of the 600 Club. They have another SOL test this month. The subject: writing.

With ambitions to become an author swirling in her head, Kristina said she was only a little nervous about the test. "If I can't get a good score on the writing test," she said, "then I've got some problems."

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