Editorial: Right direction

Scores achieved by Harford County students in the latest round of testing designed to assess the performance of teachers and the school system mostly show continued incremental improvement, with many of the county's elementary schools finishing well above state and regional averages.

This is a positive development, and no doubt reflects a substantial effort on the part of teachers, administrators and other school staff members, as the new head of elementary education for the county noted last week.

Does it reflect a reality, in which students are better prepared, or is it a reflection of a situation wherein the school system has become more adept at what is often called "teaching to the test?"

At this stage of the game, there's no way to tell. Check back in 20 or 30 years and if the generation of kids whose scores were improved show a corresponding increase in earning power over those of the previous generation, then maybe the answer will be "yes." Conducting long term studies to assess such long term outcomes isn't practical, however, because too often those 20 or 30 or more years out of public schools can be heard spouting off about education not being as good as it used to be. Of course, the exasperation with "kids today" has been a theme of older generations for enough generations that if it were indeed true, we'd have regressed so far as to be living in caves, grunting at each other with atrocious manners.

Hyperbole about the shortcomings of the modern generation and the flaws involved with tests designed to assess the effectiveness of a school system aside, there's reason to be optimistic in Harford County about the latest round of Maryland Scholastic Assessment test results. The county's schools are on par with the best in the state and Maryland is regarded as being among the top states in the country when it comes to education.

Furthermore, the state's testing regimen in recent years has assessed not only the performance of the teachers and schools, but also the individual students. This is in sharp contrast to the situation of a decade ago when statewide teacher assessment test results weren't even recorded for individual students.

These days, the test results have ramifications not only for teachers and school staff, but also for the students taking the tests. Making this change was a key first step in the direction of understanding a key reality of public education, that being everyone — school employees, kids, parents and even adults with no children — has a stake in making sure our public schools prepare each generation to be successful. In the absence of having access to time machines that would allow administrators to check on adults and then go back and fix problems in a particular school or educational technique, tests are the next best thing we have for making sure students are prepared and schools are doing a good job preparing those students.

We have also long maintained in this space that if everyone is taking the same test across the state – or across the country as is the case with the SAT and AP tests – you darn sure want your kids to perform well, regardless arguments about the efficacy of testing.

Seen in this light, if the test results are good, and people — especially parents — have a sense that those results are meaningful and important enough to pay attention to, then that's a good thing, because it means a relatively wide swath of the people in the county are paying attention to public education. When people are paying attention, problems are relatively quickly brought to light and efforts are made to fix them.

We may not know for sure if the improvement in test results will reflect an improvement in the lives of those tested, by which time it'll be too late to make meaningful changes, at least for those people. The latest test numbers, however, are an indication that progress is being made and attention is being paid, which is better than going the other direction.

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