We often hear, and I frequently say, that despite all the criticism, public schools are much tougher than when I was in them.
Courses are more rigorous, teachers are held to higher standards (and are better paid) and expectations are stronger. I really do believe we're turning out better students as a result.
Don't agree? Pick up an eighth-grade algebra book, the one from the class that awards high school credit to the overachieving middle-schoolers who pass it. It's incomprehensible gobbledegook to me.
Of course, it was all incom-prehensible gob-bledegook when I was studying the same material -- but that was in college.
Yet it seems for every revamp of the curriculum, every effort to strengthen the courses of study, something comes along to knock the wind out of our barely ballooning confidence.
The latest is word from the Georgia Department of Education, which recently released the "cut scores" on the new high school end-of-course tests.
Those tests are designed to meausre how well students are learning statewide. Whether they're in Appling or Alpharetta, the students take the same test, and the score provides 15 percent of their grade. It's supposed to tell us whether the curriculum is being met statewide, and allow comparisons from system to system.
What's confusing is that the DOE sets a "cut score" for these tests. Rather than use percentages -- you know, 70-79 is a C, 80-89 is a B -- the DOE pulls numbers out of a hat to set the percentage of questions students must get correct.
This is supposed to be common with standardized tests, making the difficulty of the test match the expectations of the curriculum. That sounds OK in theory, but such manipulation can't be a confidence-booster to a public already skeptical about their public schools.
For example, the DOE says third-graders passed this past year's reading exam if they got 17 out of 40 questions correct. My math isn't that good, but in most grade books, that's a big red glowing "F."
The DOE cut scores on the end-of-course tests don't sound much better. Students can get an "A" on some of the tests by scoring as low as a 59.
As reported in the Atlanta paper, the DOE didn't want to release the cut scores; "Officials ... worried that the public, accustomed to classroom tests where 70 percent correct is required to pass, would view the cut scores as a sign of low standards."
All this reminds me of our local furor that flared when teary-eyed students complained to the Columbia County Board of Education that it was "unfair" to prohibit them from marching in commencement exercises just because they failed the state graduation tests.
The embarrassment of all this is that the graduation tests are laughably easy, and students can take each segment five times. Such leniency devalues the test for those who pass it, while undermining confidence in the education of those who repeatedly fail it. Hard to find a winner here, except in the testing services paid for all this stuff.
Spending time getting to know some of the bright students and teachers in our own system may throw off my perception a little, but I do believe the school system is much better than it used to be back in the "good old days" when I got a high-school diploma without even having to take a foreign language.
But at least I earned my other "C's" legitimately, without the self-esteem boost from bureaucrats telling me I was really an "A" student.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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