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New Tests Will Help Students Make The Grade

True enough, half of the fourth-graders in Washington state and Spokane area schools flunked the new test used to measure math, reading and writing abilities.

This isn’t good.

The governor urged parents to turn off the TV and turn up the heat on homework.

The state superintendent of public instruction suggested teachers impose more rigorous expectations on themselves.

The critics of public schools fumed that the results simply show all the money and all the reform efforts over the years have gone for naught.

Some of this advice and comment has value.

Students could use less TV time, more homework, better teachers.

They would also benefit from better school buildings, updated computers and more counselors.

And don’t forget a plea for holding off on sex, drugs and cigarettes.

Come to think of it, why not lobby for better parents, different genes and higher economic status?

When bond issues, TV shows, bad parents, crummy genes, poverty and impulsive life decisions conspire against a kid, schools must try to compensate.

That’s why Spokane area schools are right to embrace the new tests. And the Spokane schools are neither deeply troubled nor hopelessly ill-prepared for the task of improving education over the next generation.

The new fourth-grade tests have been badly misunderstood.

These are very different tests from those taken even five years ago and people are slow to pick up the differences.

The new tests are designed to measure whether kids are proficient, meaning pretty darned good, at reading, writing and math.

The old tests measured whether kids were just getting by.

“These new tests are trying to push everyone forward,” explained Mick Miller, principal of Mead High School and someone familiar with the history of public school testing and expectations.

“This isn’t like the old way of testing kids who get D’s and saying they pass. The new tests are saying that we want all kids to do rigorous work, not just a minimum standard. This is a big change from when we said that a D was OK and we would pass you.”

Many students and their parents who don’t get it, can’t learn it and don’t care about it will complain about the new tests being too hard.

Anti-reform groups may pick up on these complaints as a way of making the case for charter schools and vouchers for private schools.

The new, tougher tests shouldn’t be whipped and beaten.

Students with C-minus grades and C-minus attitudes need schools to be tougher if for no other reason than to help them learn a bit about our democracy and what it takes to be a good citizen. It may be the only place such lessons will be taught outside of prison, the welfare line and divorce court.

The tougher fourth-grade tests are right for the bottom half of today’s student body.

But that’s not the whole story of positive changes under way in Spokane area schools.

Take a look at the top end of today’s Spokane student population and some truly outstanding results are beginning to show up.

Results from this spring’s advance placement tests for college are in. They show more Spokane area high school seniors than ever being well-trained for college work.

In Spokane School District 81, 311 students took the Advance Placement tests in May. The tests are used by the best universities to measure the educations of the best students in the country.

These 311 District 81 students who took the AP tests scored higher than the Washington state average, higher than the national average, and higher than the international average.

Lewis and Clark High School had the highest number of juniors and seniors who took the AP tests and who passed it.

Out of 108 LC students who took the AP tests, 90 percent passed.

Other Spokane high schools did well, too.

North Central had 47 students take the test and 78 percent passed.

Ferris High School had 74 kids take the test and 74 percent passed.

Shadle had 69 take the test and 65 percent passed.

And the trend is headed up, up, up through the metropolitan area.

At Central Valley, 79 percent of the record 112 students who took the test passed.

At Mead, a record 141 students took the test and 69 percent passed.

At these big public high schools the story line includes a chapter about more kids challenging themselves and more kids succeeding at the top end of the academic scale.

So don’t worry too much about the fourth-grade test scores. They are right on the mark for what needs to be done early on in public schools.

The new test suggests a public policy shift from letting kids just get by to an attitude of pushing low achievers to do better.

If they do, the reward awaiting them will be a system of advance placement classrooms that appear equal to the best found anywhere in America.

, DataTimes MEMO: Chris Peck is the editor of The Spokesman-Review.

Chris Peck is the editor of The Spokesman-Review.