Victims of Our Demographics?

Followers of the school division and this blog will recall that PWCS representatives frequently cite our demographics as justification for lower SOL pass rates, SAT / ACT scores, and graduation rates than other jurisdictions in our area.  That assertion is rarely challenged.

Careful examination of the data indicate that while PWCS’ demographics do play a role, they are not the only reason our scores aren’t what we’d hoped they’d be.

One of the largest “things” that can adversely affect the scores and rates upon which we evaluate schools is the financial stability of the child’s family.  Children from poor families tend not to do as well in school as children from financially stable families.

This chart lists the on-time graduation rates and drop-out rates for school divisions in our area, broken out by economic group, for the class of 2013, the last year for which data is available on the VA DOE web site.

On-Time Rates


As you can see from the chart, overall, PWCS had a 90% on-time graduation rate for the class of 2013 .  That puts our on-time graduation rate below every other school division in the region, except Manassas, Manassas Park, and Alexandria.  While that’s not great, it’s not as bad as it might appear to be because of the demographics of students in PWCS.

PWCS has the largest percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the area, except for Manassas, Manassas Park, and Alexandria.  About 42% of PWCS students in the class of 2013 were classified as economically disadvantaged, as were about 57% of Manassas students, 50% of Manassas Park students, and 66% of Alexandria students.  Each of these school division had a lower on-time graduation rate than did PWCS.  Arlington was close to us with 41% economically disadvantaged; their overall on-time graduation rate was close to our’s at 91%.

Once you break things out by economic group, the rates start to look a little different.

Look at the line for Stafford County.  Stafford’s overall on-time graduation rate was 92%; 2% higher than PWCS’.  Their on-time rates for economically disadvantaged and not economically disadvantaged students were 81% and 96%, respectively.

Fairfax is similar.  Fairfax’s overall on-time graduation rate is the same as Stafford’s, with 92% overall on-time; again, 2% higher than PWCS’.  Like Stafford, their on-time rates for economically disadvantaged and not economically disadvantaged students were 82% and 96%, respectively, only 1% off Stafford’s rate for ED students.

Now look at the line for PWCS.  Our overall on-time rate was 90%; 2% below both Stafford’s and Fairfax’s, but our on time rates when broken out by economic group are almost identical at 81% and 96%, respectively.  How could two counties with roughly the same economic group on-time rates as PWCS have overall rates that are 2% higher than PWCS’?

That difference is due to the fact that PWCS has a greater percentage of economically disadvantaged students than do Stafford and Fairfax. About 27% of Stafford’s class of 2013 was classified as economically disadvantaged; about 31% of Fairfax’s was.  In PWCS, it was 42%.  Students from economically disadvantaged and financially stable families in Stafford, Fairfax, and PWCS graduated on-time at about the same rate, but, PWCS ends up with a lower overall rate because we have a greater percentage of students in the group that graduates on-time at a lower rate.

This doesn’t mean everything is peachy keen and that demographics account for every difference.

Look at the line for Arlington County.

At 41% economically disadvantaged, Arlington’s class of 2013 had about the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students as did PWCS.  Their overall on-time graduation rate was 91%, just 1% greater than PWCS’.   However, their on-time graduation rates for economically disadvantaged and not economically disadvantaged students were higher than PWCS’.  For ED students it was 82%, 1% higher than PWCS’. For not ED students it was 98%, 2% higher than PWCS’.  While PWCS’s overall rate may be adversely affected by our demographics, a greater number of PWCS students should be graduating on-time.

Now go to the section on dropout rates.

At 2%, PWCS’ dropout rate for not ED students is about the same as every other county in the area, but, at 14%, our dropout rate for ED students is the highest in the area, except for Manassas Park.

Now look at the 2nd chart, which breaks out the percentage of students getting an advanced versus a standard diploma.  About 60% of Arlington’s class of 2013 received an advanced diploma, 62% of Fairfax’s did,  54% of Fauquier’s did,  70% of Loudoun’s did, and 59% of Stafford’s did.  Only 44% of PWCS’ class of 2013 received an advanced diploma.  PWCS has the lowest percentage of students getting an advanced diploma in the area, except for Manassas and Alexandria, and demographics don’t “save” us here.  PWCS also had the lowest percentage of ED and not ED students receive an advanced diploma, except for Alexandria.

All of this is meant to inform, to let you see what’s really happening in PWCS.  Yes, our demographics do adversely affect our overall scores, but when broken out by economics, we are still at the bottom of the pack.  Too many children from economically disadvantaged families are dropping out of school in PWCS.  Too few students are doing the work necessary to get advanced diplomas in PWCS.  That shows up in our lower SAT and ACT scores.

We have a good school system with great teachers, students, and parents.  Solving our problems won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight.  The first step in fixing a problem is admitting that you have one.   Some of our school board members openly admit that we have a problem, others appear to prefer to remain ignorant.

I don’t know what the answers are, but I know that if we choose to remain ignorant then improvement will be impossible.  Feel free to share this with your school board members and anyone else you think might be interested.  Maybe our leaders will be willing to take steps to fix our problems, if we show them that problems do exist.


4 Responses to “Victims of Our Demographics?”

  1. Concerned Mom of Two Says:

    What concerns me, as noted in The Washington Post in Jay Mathews’ Challenge Index analysis (measuring AP participation rate) is that Patriot High School (#20 locally) has an average SAT score approx. 300 points below comparative high schools (demographically speaking) in the greater DC area. With one of the lower ED rates in the county & a high participation in AP courses, this should not be the case.

    I’ve written to Jay Mathews for his opinion as to why this is so since he appears to be familiar with local school systems. I haven’t heard back yet but I hope he examines what’s happening in Prince William County, the 2nd largest school system in the state. The only things that I can conclude is that class sizes matter. Teacher salaries matter. Per pupil spending matters.

    Chairman Johns’ weak rationale, “oh well, we don’t have the money” is unacceptable. He does not speak for this taxpaying family. We view investments in education as key to this county’s future.

    • pwceducationreform Says:

      I doubt you’ll get a response from Matthews. I’ve written to him and have never heard anything back.

      PWCS has a problem, as our SAT and ACT scores indicate. School division officials would prefer that the citizens, and our elected leaders, remain ignorant of those problems.

      • Concerned Mom of Two Says:

        The time for sticking their heads in the sand has ended. With the U.S. Dept of Justice investigating the school boundary issue for the 12th high school, the 2nd largest school district in the state cannot continue to avoid publicity. PWC has also come under intense criticism from The Washington Post editorial board for not fully funding pre-K. All of these issues are related to each other & contribute (or not) to what truly is a World Class school system.

        The use of School Fusion by Chairman Johns to offer a rebuttal to Justin Wilk’s editorials was unfortunate. I believe it will only bring increased scrutiny to his claims.

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