Montgomery County school officials are trumpeting an impressive jump in their students' SAT scores, but data shows that the increase was driven by spikes in scores at schools with predominantly minority populations where participation dropped as much as 28 percent.
At Wheaton High School, where 74 percent of last year's seniors were black or Hispanic, the average score jumped 72 points to 1,395, while participation fell from 70.3 to 50.5 percent. In Kensington, scores at highly Hispanic Albert Einstein High School skyrocketed 114 points, while participation dropped 16.3 percent to 51.4 percent. In Gaithersburg, 23.6 percent fewer students took the SAT at Watkins Mill High School, but scores shot up 95 points.
An analysis by The Washington Examiner found that substituting the 2009 scores at the three schools would lower the school system's 2010 average score to 1,608 (of 2,400) -- a seven-point drop from 2009 and significantly below this year's 1,653.
The school district saw a 38-point jump in SAT scores this year, with the biggest gains among African-American and Hispanic students. But participation overall dropped about 8.5 percent, with a 15.6 percent drop in participation among blacks and 17.7 percent among Hispanics, groups who traditionally do not perform as well on tests.
Poolesville High School, where 71 percent of seniors were white, was the only institution that saw an increase in participation. Its SAT scores jumped 85 points.
"The fact is, last year the superintendent [Jerry Weast] took a personal hit because Fairfax County spent less money and outscored us on the SAT. He looked bad, and he knew it. Am I surprised we got a sudden decrease in participation among certain groups and magically higher scores when he needed that? Not at all," said a Montgomery school board member speaking on background to preserve a working relationship with Weast, who is retiring at the end of the school year.
School officials attributed the drop in SAT participation to more students taking the ACT instead.
An Einstein mother whose Hispanic son is a senior said school administrators pushed him to take the ACT. "Over the past year, kids were being steered toward the ACT rather than the SAT because their scores aren't high enough," said the mother, who wished to remain anonymous to protect her son. "It seems to be minority kids being steered that way.
"They'll tell you they want success for every student, but really it's to make the administration look good."
Einstein administrators did not return requests for comment.
The discrepancy "merits an investigation," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. "It may be that low-scoring students were dissuaded from taking the test. You can make test average scores increase by limiting test-taking access to your best students."
Faye Newsham, whose son is a senior at Wheaton High School, said rising tuition in an economic downturn prompted low-performing students to forego college -- and the SAT.
"The kids I'm seeing are thinking, 'Why bother taking it when I'm just going to go to Montgomery College or go work construction?' "