Dear Extra Credit:

Admission to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology depends in large part on academic achievement ["In Jefferson's New Class, Incomes Seem to Count," Extra Credit, Sept. 29], but achievement for black students in Fairfax is lagging that of blacks in other Virginia districts.

A study by Maria Casby Allen, a Fairfax school system parent, found that on the 2004 fifth-grade Standards of Learning test in reading, pass rates for black students were 85 percent in suburban Chesterfield County outside Richmond and 79 percent in Richmond and Norfolk. Only 74 percent passed in Fairfax County.

On the math test, 80 percent of black students passed in Chesterfield County, 75 percent in Richmond, 70 percent in Norfolk and 63 percent in Fairfax.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires school districts to report test scores by ethnic group. The scores show that other districts have made far more progress in improving achievement among minorities than Fairfax has. On all eight SOL tests given in the elementary grades in reading, math, science and social studies, scores for Fairfax black students were the lowest among the state's suburban districts with 10,000 or more black students (Chesterfield, Henrico, Prince William, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach), and lower than in the high-poverty districts of Richmond, Hampton and Norfolk.

The state's other districts have taken action to improve achievement among minorities. For example, all of those districts received federal grants of $1 million per school to improve reading instruction at Title I (high-poverty) schools. Those districts have used the funds to help children.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale recently complained that federal officials need to finance school reforms.

However, Fairfax did not apply for the new federal reading funding for six of seven eligible schools. One school, Bucknell Elementary, was granted federal funding but this year dropped the program. The feds sent a check. Fairfax sent it back.

Repeatedly over the past 10 years, Fairfax teachers have cited test scores to show that our programs are not working, especially for minority students. Fairfax administrators, however, have opposed using programs proven elsewhere in place of locally written curriculums that keep local administrators employed.

This is not just a minority or TJ issue. On the 2004 SOL test in Algebra II, Fairfax scores for all students ranked at about the state average. Our chemistry SOL scores ranked in the bottom 40 percent.

All of our children deserve a Jefferson-quality education.

Other districts are making progress. Fairfax is not. Why is Fairfax refusing to accept federal funds to help poor children? Why should scores for any group of Fairfax students be among the lowest in the state? Why isn't Fairfax doing what works to help children?

Rick Nelson

Falls Church area

Former Fairfax County

Federation of Teachers president

I asked Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier to respond to your questions. Here is some of what he wrote:

"The Fairfax County public schools are committed to the achievement of all students. In fact, the school system began breaking out scores of students in particular categories (such as ethnic minorities) 20 years ago (long before there was any state or federal requirement to do so) and providing additional resources to schools to help close the gap between the scores of majority and minority groups.

"Raising the pass rates of black students on SOL tests is a top priority for the school system. In 2005, black students, who make up 10.7 percent of our enrollment, had pass rates of 71 percent for language arts and 72 percent for math. White students, who make up 51.4 percent of our enrollment, had pass rates of 92 percent for language arts and 93 percent for math.

"Our schools are going in the right direction. In 2005, black students made gains of 5 percentage points in SOL pass rates in language arts and 3 points in math. Title 1 elementary schools, which have the highest rates of poverty, showed gains of 16 points in language arts and 6 points in math. Twenty-five of the 35 Title 1 schools had gains of more than 10 points in one or both subjects. Fairfax County will continue to provide additional resources to schools to support students who are not achieving. These pass rates will increase.

"Although there are districts in Virginia of varying size and diversity that have higher pass rates for black students on SOL tests than Fairfax County does, the achievement gap between black and white students remains statewide. In 2005, the pass rates for black students in Virginia were 70 percent for language arts and 73 percent for math. The pass rates for white students on these tests were 87 percent and 89 percent, respectively. We all have work to do.

"Fairfax County will also continue to improve the pass rates on SOL tests in chemistry and Algebra II, but the pass rates are not the only data to consider. For the graduating class of 2005, 91 percent of county students completed chemistry; 80 percent took chemistry as sophomores. Eighty-eight percent of 2005 graduates completed Algebra II; 54 percent completed Algebra II before their junior year. In 2004, the most recent year for which statewide data are available, 24 percent of the SOL chemistry tests administered by Virginia were taken by Fairfax County students.

"These data suggest that the Fairfax County school system is keeping more students in a science sequence that prepares them for advanced science courses. Our expectation that students enroll in higher-level math and science courses may contribute to lower passing rates when compared with districts with lower levels of participation, but we will maintain these expectations for our students. Other examples of high expectations in science and math are the more than 3,600 AP and IB science tests and 3,700 AP and IB math tests that Fairfax County students took in 2005."

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