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It's time to win one for the home team

It was by far the most important score of the year.

It wasn’t in football, volleyball, basketball, baseball or swimming. It wasn’t even in music, debate or drama.

It was in the one area in which every school faces a must-win situation every year: academics.

Who won?

In Marion County, Hillsboro clearly placed first, though not by the type of margin that typically separates elite programs from the pack.

Goessel came in a respectable second.

Marion and Peabody-Burns slugged it out for a distant third, with a slight edge to Marion.

Centre was forced to adopt a wait-’til-next-year attitude.

We reported the cold, hard numbers regarding college entrance exams in a recent issue. What we may not have completely told you is what they mean.

We take no relish in conveying news that’s not particularly good, but simply ignoring something because it’s not what we want to hear is rarely the best approach.

The scores, from the annual ACT test, are about as close as we get to a predictor of how well our schools prepare students for college.

Unfortunately, the only district in the county to record scores above the recommended minimums indicating college readiness in all four key subject areas tested was Hillsboro.

Marion and Goessel failed to do so in one of the four areas, science. Peabody-Burns failed to do so in two, science and math. Centre failed in three — science, math and reading; it met the minimum only for English.

Although all but Centre finished somewhat above the state average, the state as a whole failed to meet minimums in two areas.

Among 17 states, primarily in middle America, where the ACT is dominant but not required of students who aren’t planning to go to college, Kansas finished in the middle of the pack — seventh place, behind Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana.

Although a few states, Colorado and Illinois among them, require the ACT of all students as a measure of high schools’ performance, the test isn’t designed to measure how well a district does in preparing students who don’t plan to go to college.

Still, the percentage not going to college gets smaller every year, as college is proving more and more expected if our nation hopes to remain competitive in a demanding global economy.

Marion County’s test scores, on average, are far short of what would be required for entry to even a mildly selective university.

Centre’s average score isn’t high enough to earn admission to any state university in Kansas unless the student also ranks in the top third of his or her class.

Peabody’s average score would put its graduates in the bottom quarter of incoming freshmen at Kansas State University.

Even the best average score, Hillsboro’s, would put its graduates well within the bottom quarter of incoming freshmen at the University of Kansas.

At a university with more selective admissions, such at the University of Illinois, the average test score from all but Hillsboro is in a range where admission would be an extreme longshot.

More than half of Marion County graduates would qualify at Illinois only for a remedial program reserved for minority students from under-performing central-city schools.

Athletes typically occupy most of the seats in that program. And that’s at Illinois — more selective than, say, UCLA, but not as selective as Harvard, Duke or Stanford.

As communities, we have done a wonderful job creating first-class facilities for athletics and performing arts. We have strong ties to vocational programs, and we are striving — as we should — to create facilities for socialization.

Where we may have fallen short is in championing academics. If anything, we’ve gone the other way. The only time academics seems to be raised as an issue is when someone complains that grading is too tough.

Setting standards high encourages teachers to teach more and students to learn more.

Except at very small colleges, the exact grade-point average a student earns in high school doesn’t count for much. More important to admissions decisions is how well that student does in comparison to others in his or her class — the student’s competitive class rank — and how well the school, as a whole, compares to other schools on such tests as the ACT.

Supporting schools means paying for more than just sports and arts facilities and teen centers. It also means paying for top-notch science labs, books and teachers. And it means honoring achievements in those areas at least as much as we honor achievements in athletics and arts.

We need to support academics not out of some sense of intellectual snobbery. We need to support academics because we want our young people to be able to do more in later life than look back on faded high school scrapbooks. High school should be a starting point, not a life’s crowning achievement.

We suspect some in the community regard academics as a negative — a brain-drain out of town. True, many top graduates do leave town. But others — Central Bank’s Greg Bowers is as good an example as any — continue to serve the community, and still others continue to be involved in local businesses and charities from afar.

If one of our athletic teams had a less than totally successful season, we’d be quick to ask the coach how we can do better next year.

We should be asking school board members and educators to detail for us what they plan to do to improve on this year’s scores. And their plan should involve more than simply “teaching to the test” — giving practice exams that instruct less about the subject matter than they do about how to artificially boost scores.

Educators everywhere agree that one of the biggest factors in student performance is involvement of family members.

Showing a child, grandchild, niece or nephew that we care as much about their performance in the classroom as we do about their performance on stage, on the field or in social circles is perhaps the most important gift we can give them.

As a newspaper, we hope to do our part by increasing the amount of coverage we provide to academics. We urge readers to do their part, too, and celebrate stars in the classroom as much as we do stars in extracurricular activities.

It’s not an either-or situation. We don’t have to stop cheering athletes and performing artists to start cheering scholars, too.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Dec. 2, 2009

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