A Comparison of Two Suburban High Schools

This is depressing, but not particularly surprising: Fairfax County, Virginia has rejiggered some high school boundaries in order to even out attendance at the county’s schools and socioeconomically integrate. In the process, a group of affluent families were told their rising freshmen would be attending South Lakes High School, which has more economically disadvantaged students than other nearby schools. The parents raised $125,000 to sue the district, but lost. As Erin Dillon writes at The Quick and the Ed, “If these parents can raise $125,000 to sue the school board, they probably also have the clout to get more AP classes into South Lakes High School, and that’s the kind of parental involvement that improves the quality of education for all students.”

Indeed. What’s more, South Lakes already offers an International Baccalaureate program — so it’s not like there aren’t options for advanced students at the school. South Lakes also has a pioneering political science program for seniors, which allows them to complete a semester-long internship with a non-profit or government agency. Some South Lakes students have even interned in the U.S. Senate. That’s an incredible opportunity for a high school kid.

So were the litigious Fairfax parents correct to freak out about South Lakes? Let’s look at the numbers.

At South Lakes High, 46 percent of students are white, 20 percent are black, 16 percent are Hispanic, and 11 percent are Asian. One-third of the school’s population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. In other words, this is both a racially and socioeconomically diverse school. How does this affect the most academically talented/privileged proportion of the student body? Well, more than half of white kids and almost half of Asian kids participate in the IB program, as do about 20 percent of blacks and Hispanics. An overwhelming majority of all the students enrolled in IB score a 4 or better, indicating excellent instruction and achievement. As for the SAT, the average combined score for white kids at South Lakes is 1730 out of 2400.

Now let’s look at Oakton High School, which affluent parents sued to get their kids into. Oakton is 67 percent white and only 11 percent black and Hispanic. Less than 9 percent of students there qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Oakton has an AP program in which white students are just as successful as their similar white peers at South Lakes are on the IB exams; of the black students participating in AP though, less than half scored three or higher. Tellingly, on the SAT, Oakton’s white kids score 1734, essentially the exact same score as white students at South Lakes.

My point: The educational outcomes of privileged kids are remarkably similar across schools with similar curricula, while it is the least advantaged students who show more differentials. When parents are considering where to send their kids to school, they should look at the relevant numbers.

Hat tip: Matt Zeitlin.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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