Urban Myth or Unsolved Mystery 2.0?

Originally posted April 15, 2009
Revised Jan. 6, 2010

When my son, a junior at Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies (MLWGSGIS), asked why it is that his school is not listed in the U.S. News and World Report as one of the "Top High Schools in the Nation," I told him that I didn't know, but that I would be happy to find out.

I honestly believed that it had to be a simple oversight, one that could easily be explained and corrected. After all, everyone knows that Maggie Walker is an excellent school with plenty of national honors to prove it. I also saw getting an answer to my son's question as the perfect opportunity to dispel a persistent rumor that was so preposterous that I thought it had to be one of those Richmond Public Schools "urban myths."

I recall being told in hushed tones by several teachers over the years that they thought it was "downright dishonest" for RPS to take the SOL scores of the children attending the Governor's Schools and calculate said scores into the SOL numbers of the zone high school nearest the students' respective addresses.

Boy, was I ever wrong. After several conversations with people in positions to know -- and thanks to a couple of Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by my friend, John Butcher [http://crankytaxpayer.org/Schools/more_fun_with_numbers.htm] -- we managed to obtain some facts.

U.S. News and World Report doesn't list it as an outstanding "high school" because the Virginia Department of Education doesn't identify it as "a school" on their website. If VDOE does not recognize Maggie Walker as "a school" and allow it to report its accreditation numbers, how is it that the "program" is legally authorized to issue diplomas? How do we fix this?

Astonishingly, RPS really does take the SOL scores of students who take the tests at Maggie Walker and calculates them into the scores of the comprehensive high school nearest the students' home address. How is this honest in any way?

Is this misrepresentation of these scores legal?

What does this do to the AYP numbers that VDOE is required to report to the federal government? For example, John Marshall and Huguenot each received more than a 5 percent boost in the number of children allegedly taking the SOLs at their schools. Thomas Jefferson received a whopping 9.76 percent boost and George Wythe received a 2.32 percent increase. The only high school that did not add in SOL scores of students at Maggie Walker was Armstrong.

Richmond isn't the only district engaging in this score legerdemain. Each of the various districts that send students to Maggie Walker claim those students as part of their own ADM count. There has to be an honest way of reporting this. It makes no sense whatsoever to represent that these children are enrolled at their respective home "zone" high school, when in reality they are not!

Surely, the fine minds at VDOE can help the Superintendents figure out a way to do this so their gifted students can continue to avail themselves of a more rigorous and academically challenging education.

What can be done to help the various superintendents part with these students in a way that could enhance the home district? Is there a way that the General Assembly can invest additional dollars or other enhancements into the Governor's Schools and thereby help more outstanding Virginia students be successful?

Why does VDOE need an act from the General Assembly to close the loophole that allows some districts to consider their regional Governor's School "a program" and others to see it as a "school"? What message do we send to our children if we allow this posting of scores to schools they have never attended to continue? What message do we send to the children that attend those schools by posting the scores of children they have never sat next to in class?

Who is willing to step up and help fix this mess for the sake of the hard-working students, teachers and parents? How do we turn this into a transparent "win-win" for all parties?