t's that time of year again: It's the world series of statistical futility and phony academic competition.
That's right. SAT scores have been released.
If you put a bunch of kids on a field and tell them to play baseball, but don't keep score, pretty soon you'll find the children counting the runs on their own. We have an ingrained sense of competitiveness, so it's inevitable that adults each year would dissect teenagers' SAT scores to peg winners and losers.
This year, Georgia education officials count the state as a winner because it's no longer at the bottom of the SAT score barrel. Even though Georgia's overall scores fell, the state no longer ranks dead last in the United States.
Overall scores also dropped in Columbia County by 15 points, taking the county six points below the national average (which also dropped by seven points). Of the county's public schools, only Greenbrier High School scored higher this year than last, and only Greenbrier and Lakeside scored higher than the state average.
Our neighbor to the east, Richmond County, saw its first drop in scores in 12 years, plummeting by 61 points overall. The county's semi-public Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, whose scores dropped by nine points from last year, still posted the best scores in the state.
These numbers are fun to discuss, and they can be useful as snapshot indicators of academic progress. But despite our natural inclination to turn them into a competition, it simply isn't valid to compare SAT scores from one year to another, or one system to another.
Why? Well, the test-takers aren't the same people from year to year. But more importantly, it isn't even the same test. The verbal and math portions of the SAT have been revamped, and a new writing portion has been added. Not only is the new SAT harder, education officials believe, but because it's also longer, test fatigue might deter students from taking the test multiple times in a quest for better scores.
Perhaps the least validity comes in comparing one school system to another. There's no way to avoid the Richmond vs. Columbia game around here, but the fact is that SAT scores are skewed by, among other things, the number of students taking the test. Richmond has notoriously kept a lid on the number of test-takers, a strategy that helps raise scores by shutting out lower-achieving students. Conversely, smaller Columbia County has nearly twice as many test-takers, which dilutes the statistical pool.
"Generally, the more students you have take a test overall, the averages may be a bit lower," says Associate Superintendent Lauren Williams.
Utill, the competition for SAT scores is just as inevitable as those children playing sandlot ball. But it's no more meaningful.
Columbia County's schools continue to work to improve the ability of students to perform academically, which should show up as better standardized test scores. But it's important to keep our eye on the ball: The point is to get those students to successfully complete school and move on to college or a career - not just to swing for the fences on a test.
One of the more ingenious deceptions of the D-Day invasion of World War II was the military's use of wooden and inflatable mock-ups of trucks, tanks and airplanes massed on the northern coast of England. The idea was to fool the Germans into thinking the invasion would take place farther to the north.
Those fake armaments came to mind when I heard about Columbia County planning officials' idea to possibly require a "trial balloon" - literally - from companies that want to build new cell phone towers in the county.
The county has written a new ordinance designed to cut down on the number of new cell phone towers that are being built to keep up with the rising number of cell-phone users.
The law won't do anything to make people hang up their phones and pay attention while driving; its focus is aesthetic. New towers couldn't be taller than 200 feet, and to blend in with the landscape some of them would have to look like gigantic trees.
I've seen such towers. If our camouflage skills had been that poor in 1944, we'd all be sprachen Deutsche. They couldn't look more fake if they had a sign on them that said "This Is Not A Cell Tower."
But the best part of the new ordinance is the balloons.
"The county has the discretion to require an applicant to do what's called a balloon test," Tom Tully, a senior planner for Columbia County, told our news editor Preston Sparks. "In other words, at their proposed location they would be required to fly a balloon of a certain size for a certain amount of time that would demonstrate the visual impact."
I can see it now; a giant, yellow balloon, hovering 200 feet up, flapping in the wind and drawing attention. Really, I can see it now; it's floating over the car lot down the street.
Seriously, the idea is pretty good. It would be sort of like a giant rezoning sign. Neighbors would get to see what's possibly coming, and conversely they wouldn't be able to claim - as some do when they don't pay attention to those red and white "Z" rezoning signs - that the change came as a surprise.
However, the planning staff shouldn't stop there. Here are some other helpful ideas:
In front of new project sites, developers often post big, pretty signs with conceptual drawings of the stylish strip-mall buildings that will soon grace the property. But how about before the project starts they also post a sign that shows what the land looks like after the trees are mowed down and the topsoil is scraped off?
County officials who want more funding for various and sundry projects do a very good job of telling us how good the projects are: Just look at all the "Your Sales Tax Dollars At Work" signs. How about if those signs include a line, "Here's how much extra your car cost to pay for this project"?
We hear rosy scenarios for how new roads will fix traffic problems, but nothing about how those better-flowing roads will attract more new residents to clog them. How about whenever a new development is proposed, we get some fake inflatable cars and block the streets to show us our future traffic jams?
And because we can never build schools fast enough to keep up with all those people, how about when a new school is built, we erect fake little buildings next to it so we can see what an overcrowded school looks like?
Oh, wait - we already do that. They're called "portables."
Maybe, on second thought, we ought to just stick to those cell-tower trial balloons. If we get too many opportunities to see what else is going to be built, we might actually decide we want less of it.
And fending off that invasion wouldn't be any more successful than the Germans were.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106.
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