PSAT Results Are In . . . Now What?


It’s been a couple of months since students took the PSAT, but results just came in this week. Students received their reports on Monday and now the questions from both students and parents begin. Whether you/your student is a sophomore or a junior (or perhaps one of the freshmen who tested), you’re probably wondering what should I do now? Here are some helpful hints you might want to consider:

* If you want more information about understanding your PSAT results, HCPSS is holding info nights on January 13th (Wilde Lake HS) and January 14th (Marriotts Ridge HS). Both sessions begin at 7pm. You are also welcome to talk to your/your child’s counselor about the results.

* PSAT scores are fairly good predictors for performance on the SAT. Juniors should register for a Spring administration of the SAT, especially if they did pretty well on the PSAT.

* Don’t take the SAT before you prepare in some way. PSAT score reports include answers to questions and categories of questions missed. Use this information in conjunction with the My College Quickstart program (address on score report) to develop a plan of action for addressing areas for improvement.

*Scores could reveal the need for additional test prep classes. Options through River Hill include after school or Saturday classes sponsored by the PTSA or a year long for credit course students can take during the school day.

* Score reports include information about AP Potential. Based on your PSAT scores, you could be a good candidate to enroll in one or more AP courses at River Hill. Take a look at the courses that are recommended and discuss your options with your teachers and your counselor. They will help you select courses that challenge you without overwhelming you.

* Sophomores who scored at the highest levels of performance may be invited to participate in a special PSAT prep course over the summer. This program helps improve students’ chances of qualifying as a National Merit Semifinalist in their junior year. Counselors will inform students whose scores qualify them for this summer program.

* Juniors who scored at the highest levels of performance may qualify as a National Merit Semifinalist, depending on the Selection Index for this administration. Notification won’t take place until the Fall of your senior year.

If you have any questions about this topic or any other, feel free to shoot me an email at!

Finding Our Place in the World

When it comes to academics, we’ve seen River Hill standout in county rankings. We’ve fared pretty well in State rankings too. In National comparisons, River Hill has managed to make a name for itself in publications like Newsweek and US News and World Report. But how well do we stack up on the international stage? That’s the question HCPSS sought to answer when it signed on to administer the OECD test for schools last year (actually HCPSS was interested in all 12 high schools, but I’m just focused on our results).

As Dr. Foose wrote on her blog, she:

“decided to implement the OECD test at Howard County because we want our graduates to have a competitive edge, not just in the United States, but globally. This test provides the first real opportunity for individual schools to compare their performance against that of the PISA-ranked nations.  The results give us meaningful feedback about how well we are preparing our students in reading, math, and science as compared to their peers in Korea, Finland, and other world-leaders in education.”

What a great decision that was because, as a result of the test, we have copious data about students’ proficiency in reading, math, and science. Let’s explore how River Hill did by taking a look at the data shared on the HCPSS website.

On the reading section of the exam, River Hill students earned a mean score of 548, which places them behind Shanghai-China, but ahead of Korea, Finland, Hong Kong-China, and many other successful countries. As the chart below illustrates, 20% of our test takers scored at level 5 proficiency, which is considered “world class” for PISA comparisons. In the United States, only 10% of test takers score at level 5 or 6. Although more than half of the test takers scored at level 4 or above, 10% of students were below the level 2 threshold which PISA considers to be a baseline level of proficiency. Clearly, there is work to be done.

Reading Proficiency

Reading Proficiency

A mean score of 574 for the math section puts River Hill once again behind Shanghai-China, but ahead of Asian powerhouses Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Korea, and Chinese Taipei. The proficiency level breakdown is pretty impressive here as 40% of student test takers reached either level 5 or level 6 proficiency. For the 2009 PISA administration, only 10% of students in the United States reached that “world-class” threshold. Only 6% of River Hill test takers were below level 2 proficiency, which is less than the national average, but still not where we want to be.

Math Proficiency

Math Proficiency

Finally, for the science section of the exam, River Hill’s mean score of 562 places us ahead of Finland, Hong Kong-China, and Singapore, but behind…you guessed it, Shanghai-China. 17% of River Hill students reached level 5 proficiency and another 37% were at level 4. Once again, River Hill outpaced the US score of 9% of students at level 5 or 6. Only 4% of students were below the level 2 threshold, which is the lowest percentage for any subsection, but is nevertheless an area we want to improve on.

Science Proficiency

Science Proficiency

Today, I had an opportunity to work with all of the middle school and high school principals in a workshop to dig deeper into our data and explore high-leverage strategies we might implement to improve our school’s performance. One of the observations that consistently came up was how much we have already seen instruction change over the last few years. Teachers are working extremely hard to incorporate the State’s college and career ready standards into the daily instruction. In addition, class activities are more student-centered with greater emphasis given to using evidence to support assertions and connect to real world problems/scenarios. Middle school students are already starting to engage in the type of complex and challenging tasks that they will eventually encounter on the PARCC exam, SAT, AP, and the OECD test for high schools. The future is certainly bright and I look forward to seeing how we do next time around.


For more information, check out the following websites:

America Achieves


Giving Thanks

One of my fondest memories of Thanksgiving from “back in the day” is the annual Trivial Pursuit game held after we ate dinner. Dishes were cleared and, as we decided whether to have apple or pumpkin pie, we also competed in teams for “pie pieces” in the six different categories on the board. The yearly contests were epic battles that changed each Thanksgiving depending on who was in attendance that year, but one thing remained consistent–the Trivial Pursuit tradition was always a part of the holiday celebration.

Everyone has some kind of time-honored tradition with Thanksgiving–going to Aunt Bertha’s, attending the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, saying to heck with cooking and going out for dinner. Maybe your tradition is that you do nothing special for Thanksgiving? As far as traditions go, Thanksgiving has been an opportunity to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. Not many of us are farmers any more (or ever were for that matter), so it’s more about sharing appreciation for the people and things in our life for which we are grateful.

Last year, I shared why I am thankful, so I figured that it was someone else’s turn this time around. To encourage the trend of expressing appreciation, I went around the school last week asking students to give staff members a shout out for a video I was making. It was fantastic to hear all of the great things River Hill staff is doing and all of the great reasons River Hill students appreciate their teachers, counselors, etc. The video appears below (apologies for the out-of-focus segments; there was some shoddy equipment, but the sentiments are sincere and powerful, so I didn’t want to delete them).

I hope you enjoy watching. Once you’re done, promise me two things:

1) You will contribute your own “giving thanks” moment by emailing, calling, or telling a staff member in person how/why you appreciate them.

2) You will remember how powerful it is to adopt an “attitude of gratitude.” Thanksgiving is once a year, but kind words and appreciation can be given at any time.

I certainly thank you for reading and for continuing to support the wonderful staff here at River Hill High school!

How Do I Help My High Schooler with Math?

One of the greatest frustrations I hear from parents is that once their child is in high school helping out with homework may no longer be possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing since students should be doing the work, not parents, but I get where you’re coming from. Your son is confused about Precalculus, but you don’t even know where to begin, having only studied up through Algebra 2 when you were in high school. All you want to know is “how do I help my high schooler with math?”

As Maryland has adopted the College and Career Standards based on the Common Core Standards, how to help your child becomes more of a mystery since, in many ways, students aren’t learning mathematics like you did back in the day. (I’ll let you in on a secret…I’ve seen your students learning and they are learning better than you did [maybe it’s the phenomenal teachers?]). Even if you know a bit about math, you may be somewhat confused with some of the changes in math instruction, but fret not–you have some great resources at your disposal.

The first resource to consult is your child’s teacher. He or she is getting the latest and greatest professional development on curricular changes, which puts him/her in the best position to assist your child with any struggles he/she encounters. With conferences coming up in a couple of weeks, talking to your child’s math teacher about how you help support your child’s learning could be one of the most valuable conversations you have that night.

The other resource that you might not necessarily be aware of is a website created by the HCPSS Math Office. Dubbed the HCPSS Family Mathematics Support Center, the site provides FAQs from the Maryland State Department of Education and a wealth of information about Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. You might just get what you’re looking for–at the very least, you’ll learn more about what your child is learning in math!

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.


This past weekend I attended my high school reunion and, as alumni typically do when they get together, I reminisced with my friends about the good old days. Invariably, someone poses the question of “if you could go back and do it again, would you?” or someone suggests how different high school would be if we knew then what we know now.

One of the realizations I had this weekend was that although high school was a great time in my life, there is no better time than right now. Being a principal, a husband, a father is fantastic and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I hope that River Hill students also feel that there is no better time than right now. If you understand the “carpe diem” theme of Herrick’s poem above, you know how important it is to make every moment count. You don’t want to graduate high school and look back at all the regrets that could fill your locker. Take my advice and follow these five suggestions for making the most of your high school years:

  • If it’s happening, you should go. Homecoming, prom, the school play, a dance-a-thon fundraiser—so much going on and you should be a part of as much of it as you can.
  • There are more than a thousand people at River Hill; get to know as many of them as you can. Your high school experience is enhanced by the people you share it with. Increase the odds that it will be awesome by hanging out with lots of different people. The variety will help shape your perspective.
  • It’s okay to be an activist AND a musician, an artist AND a entrepreneur, an academic AND an athlete. Don’t feel like you need to be pigeonholed into just one of the things you do and definitely don’t just do one thing. You can be as complex and intriguing as you want to be.
  • You won’t always realize it now, but the teachers, counselors, coaches, and administrators you work with are amazing people. Thank them for everything they do to help you during your high school career.
  • If you discover that you have feelings for someone, act on those feelings. Twenty-five years later, you don’t want to hear about the huge crush someone had on you and wonder why you never asked him/her to homecoming. (But don’t be crushed if it doesn’t work out. The cliché is correct: There are lots of fish in the sea.

Think about my suggestions. Act on a few of them, maybe all of them, and you’ll have a pretty good high school career. For now, I’ll leave you with the words of my school’s alma mater. We don’t have one here at River Hill, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the words and sentiment could just as easily apply to River Hill.


On a hill in Maryland,

Stands our alma mater.

Grandest place in all the land

To every son and daughter.

Though our school days soon will pass

Classmates say goodbye.

We will never forget our class

And Oxon Hill High!

A Test is Just a Test

As students took  the PSAT today, I took time to reflect for a moment on our testing culture (both here at River Hill and in general). High-stakes testing has become a regular component of our educational system and for many students high-stakes result in high anxiety. One might think that the PSAT is just practice and isn’t as important as the actual SAT or an exam tied to graduation like the HSA or PARCC, but for juniors the test is also a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship program. And let’s be honest, lots of sophomores and even freshmen who take the PSAT put a lot of weight into the test results.

Every year when I congratulate students on being a commended student (top 3% nationally on the PSAT), I always see a few dejected faces because they weren’t National Merit Semifinalists. Don’t get me wrong–I admire students’ drive for success and want every student to work hard and achieve the best possible score. However, I also want to make sure that students realize that is only that—a test score.

My thoughts on the matter were framed quite well in this article I read over the summer about a Head of a school In Lancashire, England who sent her students a touching letter about what tests mean and what they don’t. You can check out the article here, but read the letter below and remember that the PSAT and any other test is just a test. It’s important, but so is a lot of other stuff in life.


Please find your end of KS2 test results. We are very proud of you as you demonstrated huge amounts of commitment and tried your best during this tricky week.

However, we are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you—the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have travelled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best…the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.

So enjoy your results and be very proud of these, but remember there are many ways of being smart.

Planning for College?

Whether you attended this week’s college fair at River Hill or if you missed it, you’ll definitely want to read on for some solid advice and resources to help you map out a plan for preparing for college. Sometimes it feels like there’s so much pressure to get into a “good” college that if your child didn’t go to the best preschool, he or she is already behind and will never have a chance of going to Harvard or Yale.

You don’t need to panic if your child hasn’t taken the SAT yet as a freshman or sophomore, but you might worry if he or she is a senior (the registration deadline for the November test is October 9th). If you’ve had a child go through River Hill already, you probably feel somewhat comfortable with what you need to do from freshman year through senior year. But if this is your first time through, you could benefit from a little advice. Check out the timeline I created below, read my “Fast 5″ tips, and click on the link below to access the county’s publication on College and Career Planning.

College and Career Planning Timeline

Tip #1: Set up a meeting with your child’s counselor. He/she will be an invaluable asset during your child’s high school years and will help make sure you are on track with college and career planning.

Tip #2: Don’t get caught up in peer pressure. Just because your neighbor’s son has a 4.0 GPA, perfect SATs, and is applying to Hopkins, doesn’t mean your kid has to. Respect the fact that every kid is different and needs to find a school that best fits his/her strengths, interests, etc.

Tip #3: Don’t sleep on HCC. You often hear people talk about HCC with a hushed voice like it’s something to be embarrassed about. We are extremely fortunate to have one of the best community college’s in the country right here in our backyard. Students often need the HCC experience to allow them time to mature and get a better grasp on who they are and who they want to be.

Tip #4: Remember that colleges are looking for actual people, not just numbers on a page. You need to be more than a GPA, more than an SAT score. What is your passion and how have you spent your high school career developing that passion? Consider how your extracurricular experiences can do more than just pad your resume, but help define your character and identity.

Tip #5: Take advantage of the college and career programs offered at RHHS and other schools. There are so many people ready and willing to help you in the process. All it takes is for you to show up. Watch for announcements and take your child with you to make the most of the experience.

* GREAT RESOURCE: College and Career Planning Guide

PS- Shout out to the RHHS Student Services team for an amazing college night this week and for providing me with the resources for this post!

Being Smart is Cool!


When I’m not working, I try to have a life outside of River Hill. I spend time with family, hang out with friends, and even watch a little TV. One new show I was looking forward to this Fall was Scorpion, which tells the story of a team of four geniuses who get recruited to be government funded problem solvers.

Scorpion premiered this Monday and (for me at least) did not disappoint. With a Ferrari racing down a runway underneath a 747, car chases through Los Angeles, and ticking clock dictating the pace of the show, there was plenty of action packed into an hour. What I liked best about the show though was how it works to make it cool to be smart.

So often, the heroes are the strongest, the fastest, or the bravest. Sometimes they aren’t  just heroes, but superheroes with superpowers that amaze us and makes us wish we too could leap tall buildings in a single bound or sling webs through the city as we chase down criminals. But that’s not the case with Scorpion.

Our four heroes all use their brains to solve problems and save the day. As I watched the pilot, I couldn’t help but see our own students at River Hill in these roles:

* Walter O’Brien, the whiz kid who hacked NASA, might be a student in Mrs. Contney’s Computer Science class who uses his coding skills in the Zero Robotics competition at MIT.

* The brilliant mathematician Sylvester Dodd could be the student taking Mr. Demaree’s Differential Equations class…as a sophomore.

* Happy Quinn, the electrical engineer who can do anything from short circuit an alarm system to hotwire a Ferrari, is potentially the young freshman who signed up for the Project Lead the Way pre-engineering academy because she’s been fixing things around the house since she was a kid.

* The world renowned-behaviorist Toby Curtis who can read just about anyone is the insightful student honing his skills of intuition in Mr. Difato’s AP Psychology class.

Being smart is cool every day at River Hill and it’s good to see it on TV too!  Check out Scorpion and watch and wait to see what our very own brainy heroes accomplish at River Hill! If you have a favorite depiction of “smart is cool” on TV or in the movies, weigh in by leaving a comment below.

River Hill Fed Ex Day 2014

FedEx Day

After attending a presentation at a conference last year, I have been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to try out an idea for professional development called “Fed Ex Day.” The presenter from Liberty High School in Carroll County shared the concept that many schools across the county had implemented over the years, but originated with the 2009 book Drive.

In his book, Daniel Pink discussed an unusual business practice started by Atlassian, an Australian software company.  Once a quarter, the company instructs all of its developers to work on anything they want for the next 24 hours with the expectation that each participant “delivers” an overview of the results. The company called these days “Fed-Ex Days” because it worked well with the slogan “when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Fed-Ex eventually made them change the name to “Ship-It Days.”)

Some further exploration of Daniel Pink uncovered two great videos that address his message on motivation: a TED talk and an RSA Animate video. In both presentations, Pink suggested that there are three factors that lead to better performance-autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Using the RSA Animate as an introductory message to staff, we put forth the charge to staff that they would be selecting how they spent their morning of the county professional learning day provided it met two “rules:” 1) they needed to collaborate with at least one other person on a school-related task and 2) they had to share the results of their work (that’s right, Fed Ex delivers).

Given the time to improve their performance (mastery) toward a purpose that they valued and selected themselves (autonomy), staff members came up with outstanding products. Teachers developed common objectives for their yearly evaluation. They came together to develop a standardized rubric for all of the writing assignments in their department. They collaborated on an articulation event for middle school students to attend. There were so many great results that I could spend pages just listing what everyone did.

But the results went beyond just the products the collaborative teams produced. Staff members enjoyed the collegiality developed by working both within their department and sharing their products with other departments. They appreciated the time to work on something they will actually use in their classroom (which if you’ve ever been to training/professional development sessions isn’t always the case). The sharing sessions also reminded us that sometimes the “experts” we can learn from are in our own building.

As we suggested to staff, the Fed Ex Day concept and the emphasis on autonomy, mastery, and purpose isn’t just for staff. Students can also benefit from similar experiences. Some students may need a little more guidance than others, but if we instill in students a sense of purpose then the time they spend on activities like Fed Ex Day, Genius Hour, or even Hawktime will be well spent.

NOTE-Special thanks to assistant principal Jared Wastler from Liberty High School whose presentation and resources helped inspire our professional learning.

How to Create a Good Relationship with Your Child’s Teacher

School’s back in session and you hopefully met your child’s teachers last week at Back to School Night. Whether this is your first child at River Hill or your fifth, you’ll definitely benefit from this “Do’s and Don’ts” list of unsolicited items advice I’ve assembled on how to work collaboratively with your child’s teachers to best support little Johnny or Suzie’s education. I’m going to be brutally honest in addressing the pitfalls to avoid as well as the opportunities to take advantage of this year. Here goes:

Parent Chart

I usually like to be #1, but on last year’s job satisfaction survey administered by HCEA, River Hill had the highest percentage of staff members who reported that they had experienced harassing behavior from parents in the last 12 months. I don’t believe for a minute that anyone’s intent is to come across as harassing, but it’s important for us to mind our words and our actions and ensure that we build a positive home-school partnership that is based on trust, respect, and collaboration. I appreciate your help in addressing this important issue.

Thanks for your support of the River Hill students and staff!