Dear Extra Credit:

Where on the Web can I find copies of the following Montgomery County documents:

1. The current budget.

2. The proposed budget.

3. The current contract between the county and the teachers union.

4. The proposed contract between the county and the teachers union.

Richard Fidler

Bethesda

Whitman High School parent

I liked this question because it forced me to dig into the deep and rich Montgomery County schools Web site, www.mcps.k12.md.us, a scary place for elderly technophobes like me. As usual, I gave up after a few feeble attempts and asked for help from Chris Noonan Sturm, director of Web services for the school system. Sturm was once an education reporter for the Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligencer Journal, so she took pity on a fellow journalist and gave me very simple directions.

To find the current school budget, click on "About Us" at the top left of the main page. Under the "Accountability" category on the left, click on "Budget" to find both capital and operating budgets.

For the teachers contract, click on "For Staff" at the top right of the main page and scroll down to the bottom, where you will see, on the left, the "Unions" category. There you find links to the teachers contract as well as contracts for support staff and administrators.

The proposed budgets and teacher contracts appear in the same places when the school board takes them up for consideration.

Dear Extra Credit:

What was the cutoff point (on the PSAT test) for the National Merit Scholarship Corp. semifinalist designation in Maryland, Virginia and the District this year? I used to think the cutoff point was the same nationally but now know it differs by state. Which states had the lowest cutoffs? The highest?

Somehow it doesn't seem right that some students get designated as National Merit semifinalists (and therefore become eligible for scholarships and are heavily recruited by colleges) even though they get noticeably lower scores than other students who do not get the same designation because they happen to live in states with a high cutoff point.

I realize the number of designations per state is based on the percentage of the national high school graduating class that comes from that state, and using different cutoffs for each state is the only way to guarantee that the percentages work out correctly. But this method shortchanges students who live in a state with a high cutoff point. I bet Maryland is such a state, given its higher-than-normal percentage of college graduates.

I don't have a long-term solution but believe that publishing the differing cutoffs is a step in the right direction.

Denise McQuighan

Gaithersburg

You have described the qualifying system and Maryland's high scoring exactly right. This year, out of a possible 240 points, the cutoff score for students in Virginia was 219, and the cutoff score for Maryland and D.C. students was 222. The District gets a break in this system because its cutoff under the rules can be no more than the highest score for any state. Without that rule, its cutoff score would be much higher.

Elaine Detweiler, spokesman for the National Merit Scholarship Corp., said Maryland, Massachusetts and the District, at 222, had the highest cutoff scores and Arkansas and West Virginia, at 205, had the lowest.

It does not seem fair that the score would be different for different states, but the system has not gotten that much unfavorable attention, probably because the stakes are so low. The average National Merit scholarship is only a little more than $1,000 for each year in college. And in the competition for places at selective colleges, students' scores on the SAT or ACT have much more influence than whether or not they are National Merit semifinalists.