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What National Merit awards do and don't tell us
A reader emailed me the following message recently about a story we ran last week about the local National Merit semifinalists. That story reported that there are 18 semifinalists from Lawrence schools this year: 11 attend Free State High School; five go to Bishop Seabury Academy; and two are at Lawrence High School.
Here's what the reader asks:
I have heard from so many LHS parents who are very upset LHS is so far behind in the number of National Merits this year. Is this always the case? Is LHS really that far behind FSHS academically? Are the schools nearly the same percentage free and reduced lunch? People are moving from the LHS district and I'm told the realtors in town encourage people to move north of 15th. Has LHS has reached a tipping point?
The point of the story was that these are 18 exceptional students – although certainly not the only exceptional students in Lawrence – and those students deserve to be congratulated. Still, it never ceases to amaze how some people can find the darkest of dark clouds behind any silver lining.
The simple answer to the reader's last question is no. LHS has not reached any kind of “tipping point” academically. And seriously, if any realtor out there is marking down homes in the LHS attendance zone because they think it just isn't up to snuff, send me your listings. I know a lot of folks in Topeka and Kansas City, Mo., who might - might - be willing to take those troubled assets off your plate.
According to the state's Building Report Cards, LHS does have a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students than Free State. So, not surprisingly, the percentage of students scoring below state standards is slightly higher at LHS.
But let's look deeper at the National Merit numbers to see what the really do, and don't, tell us.
Free State had 11 National Merit semifinalists out of 366 students in its junior class. LHS had two semifinalists, out of 393 students in its junior class. Combined, that's 13 out of 759 students. If those semifinalists had been divided evenly between the two schools, there would have been seven students in one school and six in the other.
So, the most you can say is that for some reason, Free State has four or five more National Merit semifinalists than it would have if both schools were exactly even. That's four out of 759, a variance of 0.5 percent.
That tells us nothing about the relative academic quality and rigor of one school versus the other. Any number of factors could explain that variance, most having nothing to do with the schools themselves, starting with pure random chance.
Also, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation does not award semifinalist status on any purely objective basis. It's a combination of achievement, geography and population. Every state is allocated a certain number, based on that state's share of the national senior class population.
So it's entirely possible – in fact, likely – that some Kansas students who didn't make the cut would have done so easily if they lived in, say, North Dakota (small population) or Mississippi (lower average achievement). Likewise, some Kansas students here who did win the designation might have been crushed in the competition if they lived in states like Minnesota or Massachusetts.
But let's look even more broadly. Each year, U.S. high schools graduate about 4 million seniors. At any given time, you can line those students up and rank them from top to bottom, using whatever yardstick you choose. No matter what, there will always be a top 1 percent, a bottom 1 percent, and a middle 98 percent. And it's a mathematical certainty that only 1 percent of all students will ever make it into that top 1-percent bracket.
In other words, there's a 99 percent probability that your kid won't be among them.
Only a fool would think they could increase the odds of getting their kid into the top 1 percent just by moving a few blocks across town in Lawrence, Kan., to a neighborhood where a handful more of those top 1-percenters are already clustered. Genius isn't a virus. It doesn't spread by casual contact.
The true measure of a school is how it teaches all 100 percent of its students. Does the school offer a well-rounded curriculum? Does it have strong leadership and effective teachers? Does it offer a safe and supportive environment for all students that's conducive to learning? Does it have extracurricular activities that enhance learning, build character and develop maturity? Do teachers go out of their way to help the kid who wants to learn but is struggling?
If the answer to most of those questions is yes, then stop worrying, and stop discounting the value of your house. If you want to help your kids succeed, spend more time with them. Talk to them about their schoolwork. Find out where they're having problems, and work with their teachers to help them get past it.