Walking on Quicksand in Prince William County Public Schools

If there’s not any endgame, we’re in quicksand. We take one more step, and we’re still there, and there’s no way out – Richard Shelby

Several days ago PWCS issued a press release on the division’s SAT scores.  In it Tim Healey, associate superintendent for Student Learning and Accountability, was quoted as stating, “Overall, our SAT scores remain solid, indicating that our hard work is paying off”.

Apparently “solid” to Healey means unchanged, because the SAT scores achieved by PWCS’ graduating seniors have consistently lagged slightly behind or equal to state and national averages for years.     The only area where PWCS exceeds national averages is in Reading.  In every other subject tested PWCS students lag behind national averages and lag behind state averages in every area tested.

The SAT tests three subject areas – Reading, Writing, and Math.  Here are the SAT scores for graduating seniors in the class of 2010, 2011, and 2012 for the US, Virgina, PWCS, and area school divisions which have released their 2012 SAT scores.

Reading (2010 / 2011 / 2012)

  • US      501 / 497 / 496
  • VA      512 / 512 / 510
  • PWC  509 / 502 / 503
  • FFX   552 / 551 / 550
  • LDN  535 / 536 / 531
  • MPK 494 / 450 / 488

Writing (2010 / 2011 / 2012)

  • US      492 / 489 / 488
  • VA      497 / 495 / 495
  • PWC  494 / 487 / 487
  • FFX   543 / 540 / 542
  • LDN  526 / 524 / 524
  • MPK  487 / 456 / 489

Math (2010 / 2011 / 2012)

  • US      516 / 514 / 514
  • VA      512 / 509 / 512
  • PWC  505 / 501 / 500
  • FFX   569 / 563 / 567
  • LDN  536 / 532 / 535
  • MPK 499 / 466 / 505

The scores achieved by PWCS students are more than 160 points below Fairfax, 100 points below Loudoun, and roughly 20 points above Manassas Park.   Manassas and Stafford have not released their SAT scores as of noon today, but if history is any indicator, PWCS is probably about 20 points below Stafford and about equal to Manassas.  It has been that way for years.

So, if “solid” means unchanged, then it’s an appropriate word.  But, at least to me, “solid” implies something more than unchanged.  It implies both unchanged and strong.  Our children’s SAT scores, while unchanged over then past several years, are not strong.  As such, I’m not sure “solid” is the word I’d use to describe our students’ SAT scores.

In fact, when the goal PWCS has clearly set for our children is just average for the US and VA,  and we’re below US and VA averages in every area, I’d call that standing on quicksand.  Unfortunately, that sucking sound you hear is our children’s futures.

Every recovering alcoholic or drug addict knows that admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing it.  PWCS has a problem. Our test scores for our top tier students – those who are college bound – shouldn’t be more than 100 points below Fairfax and Loudoun.  Our children clearly aren’t doing as well as they should.

Our ACT scores show it.  They have for years.

Our SAT scores show it.  They have for years.

Our SOL scores show it.  They have for years.

PWCS thinks that’s “solid”.

I think that’s unacceptable.

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8 Responses to “Walking on Quicksand in Prince William County Public Schools”

  1. rgb Says:

    Maybe what we’re seeing in PW county is the best that the school system intends to deliver. Under Superintendent Walts’ tenure, the focus of the “World Class Education” initiative has been to level the playing field (reduce achievement gaps). And to do so the curricular standards in critical subjects like math have been “reset” to bare minimum SOL criteria. While there are great teachers in PWCS, there’s no requirement to “teach up.” We set the bar at a lower level in PWCS as a matter of division policy – so we ought not be surprised that achievement levels are stagnant. Curricular standards are lowered to focus on reducing achievement gaps at the bottom and that’s where we teach. The top achieving counties in northern VA raise the bar to enable those students who are capable of achieving more than “SOL passing” are provided the opportunity to excel. Their SAT scores reflect that approach. In PWCS our SAT scores are a logical reflection of the level to which we teach.

    The Superintendent charts the course for PWCS. When he puts forth weak curricular standards it is a statement as to the direction he intends the division to go. When our elected School Board votes to approve his “SOL passing only” curricula they are making the statement that they believe that’s all the county’s children need to have in their public education.

    So again, perhaps this is all PWCS intends to deliver. Welcome to PWCS’s Lake Wobegon…”Where all the children are average.”

  2. pwceducationreform Says:

    And the officials “goal” of the school division is to meet state averages on SAT, ACT, and SOL exams and declare success when we do so. I think that goal is unacceptably low.

    Fauquier County set the goal of SAT scores of 1650, 550 in each subject area (which is well above state averages). Their goal for AP testing is that 60% of students taking the exam achieve a 3 or higher with increasing participation. Their goals for SOL testing are clearly defined by subject and group, have nothing to do with state averages, and far exceed them.

    The goal in PWCS is state average on the SAT, ACT, and SOL with increased participation on the AP so that we can get higher rankings on the Washington Post and other media ratings as those evaluations only consider participation and not scores.

    If PWCS wants to be a world class school system then it needs to set world class goals for its students. This “average for the state” goal doesn’t meet my expectations for achievement. If you agree, then let your school board member know that you believe the school system is setting the goals for academic achievement for our children too low. If enough of us complain they’ll have to respond.

  3. Michele Boyd Says:

    I believe there is a direct correlation between PWCS SAT scores and the amount of funding per pupil this county spends which is amongst the lowest in the DC region (if not the lowest). When Arlington County is spending $18K+ per pupil and Montgomery & Fairfax Counties are spending $14K + and at the tail end we have PWC spending $9+K…there is no chance we can compete with these counties. Our daughter’s middle school class sizes of 34-36 is proof positive of the underfunding and this type of approach is what leads to low SAT scores. I find this situation of educating on the cheap shameful in the 7th wealthiest county in the U.S. You get what you pay for. Apparently the Board of Supervisors doesn’t care about the quality of the schools. I place the blame squarely on them.

  4. Michele Boyd Says:

    We moved to this county last year from Fauquier County. Since our kids were in private school at the time, our move was based solely on location so we would be closer to work and our kids’ activities. Unable to afford private school for the long haul, however, we enrolled them in PWCS in Fall 2011 (4th and 5th grades). We believed the county brochures that touted “all high schools are ranked in the top 7% nationally,” and all of the other wonderful stats they like to brag about. We thought to ourselves, “Great! The entire DC region is affluent and filled with college-educated people who place a high value on education and this county isn’t any different!”

    Boy, were we wrong. My husband and I are just now beginning to put the pieces of the puzzle together and it isn’t a pretty picture. (Your website is extremely helpful and we thank you for this community service.) You are correct in the blogs that I have read – PWCS do not portray an accurate picture. The Board of County Supervisors in their literature and website do not portray an accurate picture. I have not read any local newspapers that portray an accurate picture. Nor does the Washington Post delve into the lackluster performance of PWCS in its articles (outside of mentioning the stats – without providing any analysis). Its new Northern Virginian education beat reporter focuses his stories exclusively on Fairfax County. WHY IS THE 2ND LARGEST SCHOOL SYSTEM IN THE STATE OF VIRGINIA BEING IGNORED by the local press? Why aren’t parents in this county enraged about the second lowest per pupil spending in the region (last place: Prince Georges County, MD!). Why aren’t they enraged about the SAT, ACT, and SOL scores as compared to DC area counties? Why aren’t they enraged about class sizes?

    I can tell you one thing: my work colleagues and friends who live and send their kids to schools in Montgomery and Fairfax Counties would not put up with this nonsense for one minute. My one friend who has a son in 7th grade at Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville has 23 students in his advanced math class. Our daughter at Gainesville Middle School has 36 students in her extended math class. What’s wrong with this picture?

    I’ve thought to myself, do the parents of this county not care about the quality of education their children are receiving? Is this possible? However, what I’m beginning to believe is not that they don’t care, it’s that they are simply unaware. They are unaware because of the lack of attention these issues receive by both county officials and the local media as described above.

    Not knowing anything about our Superintendent, Steven Walts, I googled him. Didn’t find much information. I checked to see if he has a Twitter account. He does not. Superintendent Joshua Starr in Montgomery County has a Twitter account and I am one of his followers. He keeps the citizens of his county informed of his day-to-day activities. He keeps them abreast of the latest research and provides links to relevant articles whether they be in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or Education Week. Last year he led a countywide “book club” that featured important books on education in order to give all citizens the opportunity for reading and discussion. Next week he will be providing a “State of the Schools” address to ALL citizens and not just the ‘invitation-only” business leaders as Superintendent Walts appears to be doing this month. Where is his outreach to parents? Where is the evidence that Walts is current on the latest research and issues in education? Where is the engagement with parents? Where is the effort to raise the bar as you highlight in your blogs?

    I for one will be writing to the Washington Post asking them to have their NVA beat reporter pay some attention to PWCS. I would love to see a front page investigative story about the lackluster performance of PWCS and how it relates to the lack of funding from the Board of Supervisors – again, in the 7th most affluent county in the UNITED STATES! County officials seem to be proud of the fact that PWC spends less per pupil in the region (never mentioning that we barely beat out Prince Georges County, MD). They should feel shame instead of pride.

  5. Helicopter Mom and proud of it Says:

    I have also wondered why the Post pays so little attention; maybe it knows it will be stonewalled, or maybe it’s a bad habit from years gone by when we were all just farmland out here?


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