An editor asked me to do something different for this column. Instead of answering letters, he wanted me to comment on the latest SAT scores.
This was very brave of him. Previous editors who have asked me to write about the SAT have had to endure a venomous rant from me, the longtime SAT hater. Average SAT scores are a stupid way to measure schools, I would tell them. All that those numbers tell you is how much money and education the parents have, on average, and say little about how hard the school is trying to make its students better.
If the editor was too polite to cut me off at that point and tell me to go do my job, I would move into second gear and insist that The Washington Post end forever its annual reports on how local schools and districts have done on the SAT. I was about to unleash this rusty diatribe once again when a thought occurred to me. Why not use this opportunity to see if I was actually right? I had the new 2005 SAT scores for each Montgomery County high school, and I knew the percentage of students who qualified for federal lunch subsidies -- the standard measure of poverty in schools -- on each campus. I could compare the two figures and see what they revealed.
Please note the two charts. One ranks the schools by SAT score, the other by percent of low-income students. Both of these measures have their problems. The SAT is not taken by all students, just those who want to go to college, and changes in participation rates can affect the average score. The percentage of students who qualify for lunch subsidies is often understated, because some low-income teenagers think the program carries a stigma, like wearing your dad's old sneakers. And the income figure does not tell me what percentage of students have parents who have decent incomes but little or no college education, another factor when assessing SAT score averages.
Since this is a column for reader comments, I welcome any questions or thoughts you have about what you see here. I think the charts back up my view (which I have borrowed from social scientists who have done much more sophisticated research than this) that SAT averages correlate closely with parental income.
Nineteen of the schools on the SAT list are within four ranks of their place on the low-income list. Two of the four that have very different ranks on the charts did not surprise me. Richard Montgomery, fifth on SAT and 14th on income, and Montgomery Blair, eighth on SAT and 20th on income, have magnet programs that draw some of the highest achieving students from other parts of the county, pushing those schools' test scores higher than their demographics would suggest.
The other two, Damascus, 11th on the SAT and fourth on income, and Northwest, 17th on SAT and seventh on income, are harder to explain. It could have something to do with their having a large number of parents who have decent incomes but not so much education. I don't know and will have to investigate further. The difference could be an anomaly, and in honor of all the statistics teachers who have pounded the point into my head, correlation is not causation.
In any case, I am fortified in my belief that the SAT average is not worth much, except to people who like the idea of sending their children to schools that have many affluent and well-educated parents. There is nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't tell us much about how good the principal and teachers are. For that I would prefer to look at each school's participation rate in college-level courses, the length of its principal's tenure, the experience of its teachers and the percentage of its seniors going on to graduate from college.
We know that every high school in Montgomery County ranks in the top 3 percent of all U.S. public schools in participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. We know that one of the schools with the highest percentage of low-income students, Montgomery Blair, has the best experimental science program in the country, beating all other schools in the most recent Intel Science Talent Search.
That means that whatever your children's dreams or talents, they are going to get plenty of encouragement and stimuli in any Montgomery County high school you choose, and there are very few school districts that can say that.