Dear Extra Credit Readers:

In a letter to Extra Credit, Rick Nelson referred to 2004 statistics I had compiled last year showing that black Fairfax County students trailed their peers in other Virginia school districts ["Theories on Why Black Students in Fairfax Trail Virginia Peers," Oct. 20]. Now that 2005 statistics have been released, I thought it would be useful to see how the data compared.

I compared elementary schools' pass rates in the 10 divisions in Virginia that have the greatest numbers of black students. Black students' scores have improved in all of the districts from 2004 to 2005 -- especially in math and reading, the focus of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Black students' scores in the other districts have on average increased more than blacks' scores in Fairfax County, so the gap between black Fairfax students and their peers in other counties has not closed and in some cases has widened. This is particularly true for third-grade English, lending credence to Mr. Nelson's assertion that we are not making adequate use of scientifically proven phonics-based methods to teach our children reading.

Fifty-two percent of black third-grade students in Fairfax County passed the reading SOL test in 2004, compared with between 61 percent and 63 percent in Richmond, Virginia Beach, Prince William County and Chesterfield County, and 71 percent in Henrico County, a large, diverse Richmond suburb. A year later, 59 percent of black Fairfax children passed the reading test -- up 7 percent from the year before -- but the other school districts in the comparison showed greater improvement. Fairfax remained 10th out of 10.

Norfolk showed the greatest improvement in one year -- 15 percent, raising its scores from a 56 percent pass rate to 71 percent.

The 2005 third-grade reading pass rates for black students in the 10 districts in the study are:

* Henrico, 75 percent.

* Chesterfield County, 74 percent.

* Richmond, 74 percent.

* Virginia Beach, 71 percent.

* Norfolk, 71 percent.

* Chesapeake City, 69 percent.

* Prince William, 69 percent.

* Newport News, 65 percent.

* Hampton, 63 percent.

* Fairfax, 59 percent.

The state average was 67 percent.

Keep in mind that these numbers represent real children, a greater percentage of whom are learning to read better in other school districts that have poorer populations and fewer resources. We have a wealthy population in Fairfax County, and we have the brainpower and the resources to do better. What we don't have is a legitimate excuse for these appalling statistics.

Maria Allen

Reston

South Lakes High School parent

The Norfolk schools recently won a national award for raising the achievement of their low-income and minority students. You might look at my story on this in The Post, "Honored Systems Offer Ideas for Ailing D.C. Schools" [A section, Nov. 1]. Their reading program is very focused on one curriculum and has a goal of all children reading by the end of first grade. Many experts will say that is the wrong approach, but I welcome other views on the achievement gap in Fairfax County.

Wrong Impression on SAT Prep

Dear Extra Credit:

My daughter graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 2004 and attends Washington University in St. Louis. My son will graduate from TJ in 2006. Both are interested in math, science and technology and both plan to be engineers, so TJ was the perfect school for them. We are grateful they had the opportunity.

I always look forward to your columns. It seems, however, that you tend to make the assumption that kids at TJ and kids with higher SAT scores have had the benefit of SAT prep courses. I don't know if you have facts that back that up. My daughter scored 1600 the first time she took the SAT, with no SAT prep (and no TJ test prep). My son scored 1560 the first time, also with no prep. I think that it is more about parental involvement than family income, although I understand the two often go hand in hand.

We've lived in this area since 1995, and I've observed with interest the area's education discussions since then, especially regarding acceptance into TJ. My own theory is that we need to begin extensive tutoring and volunteering to work with less affluent kids early in the grade school years. By the time the kids are in middle school, it is likely too late. It is the basic reading skills and such simple things as mastering multiplication tables that I think make a lifelong difference to kids, including raising TJ acceptance rates and SAT scores in lower-income households.

Karen Osborn

Alexandria area

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

parent

I have long assumed that TJ students did not bother with SAT prep courses. I don't think they are necessary for conscientious students who do their homework, and I am still complaining about the $950 my daughter talked me into paying for an SAT prep course just because she felt that her classmates who were taking the course might get ahead of her. (Her score went up 10 points as a result.)

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail extracredit@washpost.com