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Intriguing patterns in ACT performance in Montgomery County Public Schools

A recent report released by Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) shows interesting trends in performance among high schools.  These graphics illustrate some of those performance patterns.
A recent report released by Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) shows interesting trends in performance among high schools. These graphics illustrate some of those performance patterns. (c) Kumar Singam

On Friday, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) posted a report on student ACT participation and performance for 2014. The data, especially Table A5, hints at intriguing patterns in performance throughout the school.
With the proviso that the observations are based on the mean scores that the school system releases, the composite ACT scores show patterns worthy of note.

ACT performance at high schools in Montgomery County Public Schools.
ACT performance at high schools in Montgomery County Public Schools.Data courtesy MCPS; Graphic (c) Kumar Singam (2014)

MCPS has twenty-six high schools, and the data contains composite ACT scores disaggregated by student group. In other words, scores are reported for each high school by race and services received. The service groups includes students receiving free or discounted meals (FARMS) which is an accepted indicator of poverty, English as a second language (ESOL), and Special Education.

In general, white and Asian students tend to report similar scores. However, Asian students at Richard Montgomery, Poolesville, and Whitman high schools tended to handily outperform their white counterparts.

Asians at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Blake, Einstein, Damascus, Gaithersburg, Kennedy, Magruder, Northwood, Paint Branch, Rockville, Springbrook, Watkins Mill, and Wheaton underperformed their white counterparts, with the disparity being greatest at Northwood. It should be noted that Blair and Northwood are located within stone’s throw of each other, in the same region of the county. However, Asians at Blair show a slight advantage over their white counterparts. This may be attributable to the fact that Blair has the advantage of a magnet program that draws from most parts of the county, and the program is predominantly Asian in its student population.

Poolesville also houses a magnet program and the composite ACT scores show the widest disparity between Asians and whites, with Asians reporting an average of 31 and whites 26. White students at Whitman, a predominantly white high school in an affluent part of the county, performed as well as their counterparts at Blair, which has a diverse student body and is located in a less affluent part of the county.

On the other hand, the disparity in scores between minorities and their white or Asian counterparts was significant—the so called achievement gap. One stand out, Poolesville, boasts the smallest gap between its black and white students, a mere one point. It is a school that is 56.1% white, 25.6% Asian, 5.2% black, and 7.3% Hispanic, and does not reflect the demographics of the system as a whole. While there are many possible explanations for the insignificant difference in performance between black and white students at Poolesville, all are speculative without additional information. For example, do black and white students at Poolesville come from very socioeconomic backgrounds?

According to the MCPS data, students on free and reduced price meals, for the most part, mirrored the performance of black students. FARMS students at Walter Johnson, Kennedy, Magruder, Rockville, and Whitman outperformed their black counterparts. At Whitman and Walter Johnson FARMS students significantly outperformed black students.
While the data does suggest intriguing performance patterns, it must be borne in mind that ACT performance data relates to a self-selected group of students—those choosing to take the ACT exam. Nevertheless, the performance patterns suggest the achievement gap, at least when measured by ACT performance, defies simplistic conventional explanations.

Note: A slideshow that illustrates some of the performance patterns for various demographics accompanies this column.