Dear Extra Credit:

Am I confused?

In a recent column ["Two Studies, One on Fairfax, Explore Why Districts Succeed," Dec. 1], you state your opinion that the Fairfax County public schools are "the best school system in America." And yet in an earlier column you bravely cited data showing that:

* Black students in wealthy Fairfax scored lower than black students in high-poverty Richmond and Norfolk on every Virginia SOL test given in the elementary grades. Fairfax County schools have more than 18,000 black students.

* For all students, not just minority students, wealthy Fairfax's scores on the Algebra II SOL ranked 57th out of 130 Virginia districts. On the chemistry SOL, Fairfax students averaged in the bottom 40 percent of the state.

I know that both minority achievement and math and science education are important to you. I personally believe that your work in publicizing the achievements of Jaime Escalante did more to convince America that our schools could do better, especially for minority students, than all of the major "reform reports" combined (and they were excellent work).

So please tell me: What issues are more important in our schools than closing the minority achievement gap and preparing our children for an increasingly competitive world economy?

SAT scores? Fairfax County's own data show that a majority of its black and Hispanic enrollment does not take the SAT test.

AP and IB enrollment? In Fairfax, these programs have resegregated our schools by race and income. For our children, in our high school academic classrooms, we again have two school systems, separate and unequal, 140 years after Gettysburg.

Need proof? Stick your head into our high school classes and open your eyes.

When children in less wealthy districts achieve so much more than in Fairfax in key areas, does it not raise serious concerns? Given the importance of these issues, what data are there that would justify the highest ranking for Fairfax?

Rick Nelson

Falls Church

Former president,

Fairfax County Federation

of Teachers

You raise many good points. This is not the first time that I have seemed to contradict myself.

The higher scores for African American children in Richmond and Norfolk are interesting and merit more investigation. There are all kinds of theories floating around, including Fairfax's reluctance to adopt the more phonics-heavy curricula of some other districts and new research indicating that the social pressures that seem to limit academic motivation in some African American teenagers are less evident in urban districts where there are few white students.

But we don't know enough about how the schools we are comparing actually differ in the kinds of students they are educating. Speculation at this point does not get us very far. It is something I hope to work on soon.

As for my view that Fairfax is the best large school district in the country, I don't see much in your argument so far that convinces me otherwise, since you are just pointing out the county's flaws -- all school districts have them -- without comparing Fairfax to other districts. I welcome any data you have that would offer up another district as the nation's No. 1. I think such comparisons inspire useful thought and good research.

On one point, however -- the alleged resegregation of Fairfax schools by AP and IB courses -- I think you are just plain wrong. I wrote a book recently, "Supertest," about the IB program at Mount Vernon High School.

It is clear from extensive interviews and observations that that program has brought more black and Hispanic students into IB than have ever been seen there. About 35 percent of the IB students at Mount Vernon are black or Hispanic. The number of minority students in IB at other county schools, such as Stuart and Annandale, has also increased.

Fairfax County is the largest school system in the country to have opened up its AP and IB courses to all students who want to take them. This doubled the number of AP and IB tests in just one year, from 1998 to 1999.

Many of those tests were taken by minority students who in most American school districts are still told they just are not AP or IB material.

If you have information to the contrary, I would love to see it. But you have been busy in this county and have not yet had time to see, as I have, the important ways that the rest of the country is still far behind Fairfax County.

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