Which public schools are the best in the DC area? Looking at SAT scores, Fairfax county comes out on top with a large range in public schools (nearly 500 points out of 2,400) from the highest to the lowest.
Average Combined SAT Scores 2011-2012
Fairfax county 1659
Montgomery county 1651
Arlington County 1641
Loudoun County 1590
Prince William County 1490
Prince George’s county 1274
Washington DC 1184
What I find puzzling is the differences between the number of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists among these different school districts. From the Fairfax county public school website, NMS semifinalists are described this way “Approximately 16,000 high school seniors were named National Merit Scholarship semifinalists for 2013. More than 1.5 million juniors entered the 2013 National Merit program by taking the 2011 Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®), which serves as the initial screen of program entrants. The nationwide pool of semifinalists, which represents less than one percent of U.S. high school seniors, includes the highest scoring entrants in each state. The number of semifinalists in a state is proportional to the state’s percentage of the national total of graduating seniors.” These semifinalists are the top 1% of students nationwide based on PSAT scores, the test given in 11th grade, prior to taking the SAT but very similar to the SAT.
In September 2012, Fairfax county released their list of 227 NMS semifinalists. While the number is down, it is still a substantial number of students, particularly when compared to surrounding counties. Since Fairfax county is approximately 4 times the size of Loudoun County, 1.1 million vs. 312,000, with similar demographics, I would expect that Loudoun County would have approximately one quarter of the number of NMS semifinalists or about 55 students. Not even close. Loudoun had only 14, down from a high of 20 in 2009. One high school in Fairfax, Langley, had as many scholars as all of Loudoun county high schools combined. What’s happening in Fairfax schools that is not happening in Loudoun schools? More emphasis on academics? Something else? Since Loudoun is the richest county in the nation, it seems unlikely that the difference can be explained away by any demographic differences.
Prince William county is even worse. The population of Prince William county is one-third of its neighbor Fairfax. So we might expect them to have somewhere around 75 National Merit scholar semi finalists. Again, not even close. They had 10. TEN in total! Six Fairfax high schools each had that many, without including TJHSST!
Arlington county fared better with 42 named scholars which is about what we might expect from a county one-fifth the size of Fairfax.
We would expect Montgomery County, MD to have about the same number of NMS semifinalists as Fairfax since the counties are about the same in size, with Fairfax being slightly larger while sharing similar demographics. Again, it’s not even close. Montgomery county had only 140 semifinalists, almost 100 fewer students than Faifax.
The reason that these numbers are important is because they reflect how well students are preforming in 11th grade on basic core subjects, math, reading and writing. It also means millions of dollars in scholarship money only available through the National Merit Scholarship program. Most, if not all, National Merit scholars receive scholarship money, often multiple offers from multiple schools. All northern Virginia schools had fewer scholars this year than in past years. But the differences between Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties are truly significant and should be alarming to those who live in Loudoun and Prince William. What is Fairfax doing in their public schools that their neighboring counties are not doing? What is causing this large discrepancy?