Merle Temple is considered an expert on education, and he has an impressive resume. The editor's note to Temple's guest column in the Oct. 10 Augusta Chronicle reminded readers he has been named to education commissions, recognized with a Friend of Education Award, and even taught at Augusta State University. Thus, readers of Temple's column, "With right approach, county schools can excel," might get the impression that Columbia County schools are failing their brightest and best students.
Temple is critical of a number of programs in Columbia County's schools. He complains that the county high school AP program is underperforming. And, he is critical of the scope of the county Gifted Program. He argues that other counties in Georgia with similar pupil populations do a much better job.
His proof? In a comparison of AP test scores, Temple says Georgia counties such as Fayette, Cherokee, Oconee, Coweta and Cobb have higher percentages of test-takers scoring a "passing" grade of "3" or better. A comparison of Gifted Programs, according to Temple, reveals that Columbia County enrolls "only 5.2 percent" of its students in gifted programs while similar counties serve 10 to 20 percent or more of their "gifted" students.
Does such data prove Columbia County lags behind comparable Georgia counties? Temple opened his column by saying, "Parents look at SAT scores, but they offer little in meaningful analysis. They never were intended as an indicator of comparative performance between... school systems." The most recent demonstration of this caveat was the revelation that Richmond County's dramatic rise in SAT scores was largely the result of limiting the number, and consequently the quality, of school scores officially reported for Richmond County. Any comparison of scores with Columbia County, which has no restrictions on score reporting, is not an "apple-to-apple" comparison, as Temple pointed out.
But then, amazingly, Temple turns around and makes precisely these faulty comparisons himself! His entire case criticizing Columbia County's AP and Gifted Programs is statistical comparison with other counties! Does this education expert believe only SAT comparisons can be misleading, and that AP and gifted ones cannot?
Surely such an expert knows there are many factors which can affect school AP test scores. For example, does Temple know whether the counties whose scoring data he contrasts to Columbia County have prerequisites for admission to AP classes? Do students in those schools need a certain GPA, teacher recommendation or minimum SAT scores to gain AP status? And once students are AP-enrolled, do these other counties require a minimum grade before a student can take the AP test? Any of these "gate-keeping" requirements limit the number and quality of students who take AP tests.
Without this information, which Temple fails to provide, the inferences he draws from this data are virtually meaningless. Does Temple even know how students enroll in AP classes in Columbia County? In fact, Columbia County has no restrictions on students seeking the challenge of AP: no minimum grade, GPA or SAT score, no teacher recommendations required! AP teachers in Columbia County take all comers and encourage all AP students to take the test.
By the logic of Temple's criticism of the county's relatively small enrollment in Gifted classes, he should applaud the county's widely inclusive AP Program! Temple's conclusions about Columbia County's Gifted Program are also suspect, since he provides no information about how other counties define "gifted" students. An expert in education would know that "gifted" can be defined in such a way that the concept can become meaningless and the program ineffectual.
Our middle schools also attract Temple's concern. He cites data to suggest that performance standards decline when Columbia County elementary students enter middle school. He claims other counties do better, but this time he mentions only Fayette and gives no data at all. Does the Columbia County middle-school program really suffer by comparison to other counties in Georgia and around the nation? Temple fails almost completely to provide any way to tell.
All in all, Temple's column is pretty shoddy work. It is difficult for me to believe an educational "expert" would really fail to understand that system-to system comparisons are invalid unless it is clear all systems are operating under the same rules.
I suspect Temple has "other fish to fry." His intention is really not to make a sincere evaluation of Columbia County education; he is much more interested in tarnishing the reputation of certain school board members who don't share Temple's conservative political views. He supports another self-professed education expert in Tuesday's school board election. To promote her candidacy, Temple evidently is willing to sacrifice public education policy in Columbia County to personal politics.
(Charles Heywood is a Lakeside High School AP teacher.)
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