Measuring our schools

Published 12:18 pm Saturday, October 11, 2008

Life under a microscope is hard, but in the case of our public schools, the scrutiny is healthy.

Every time we turn around, a new round of test scores or statistics is being made public. Depending on the benchmark, the public schools of Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County rate anywhere from decent to poor.

By the federal government’s definition of “adequate yearly progress” on standardized testing last spring, the three divisions were, on balance, mediocre. The state Department of Education was much kinder, giving full accreditation to all but the area’s middle schools based on Standards of Learning, or SOL, results.

But just about the time administrators and faculty members were feeling good about themselves, out comes a statistic called “on-time graduation rate,” which measures the percentage of ninth-graders who earn a diploma within four years. All three divisions lagged the state average of 81 percent. Isle of Wight, at 79.5 percent, just missed the state mark. Franklin’s rate was a pitiful 62.7 percent. Only Portsmouth, Hopewell, Petersburg, Roanoke, and King and Queen County had lower rates than Franklin.

It says something about the mediocre state of public education that Southampton County Superintendent of Education Charles Turner felt “vindicated” by a rate of 73.7 percent. By another group’s way of measuring, Southampton schools had been deemed a “dropout factory” earlier this year, so Turner was feeling pretty good about a grade of 73.7.

We’ll be the first to acknowledge that test scores and graduation rates aren’t the “end all and be all” of assessing quality of instruction. Many of the factors that drive down test scores are beyond the control of educators. Students and parents must shoulder some of the blame.

It’s also true that the mission with which our schools are charged — to prepare a new generation of citizens for the workforce — demands some accountability. Test scores and graduation rates, while imperfect barometers, give parents and taxpayers a way to compare their public schools to others. The schools of Western Tidewater too often are falling short of the mark.