State’s on the right path with tougher schools

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mississippi has lots of good public schools. A key to making them better might be making them harder — even in the earliest grades.

Ponder this: “Under current conditions, the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school.”

Think about that next time you visit a doctor. It means if he or she had not established a solid foundation for learning before the age of 15, medical school would have been out of the question.

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The quotation is from ACT, the company best known for devising exams 96 percent of Mississippi high school students take and college admissions staffs use as a predictor of success in higher education. ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa, is not a government agency, as some might believe. It is a business, just like McDonald’s or Walmart, although nonprofit.

The company has invested decades in studying what habits and skills it takes to develop brainpower. More recently, ACT has been getting into the business of nurturing brainpower, too.

In many ways, the company’s studies mirror what we’ve known in our heart of hearts for a long time. We persist in believing more money, better teachers, an array of gizmos and innovative instructional tactics can do for fertile minds what hard work and motivation can’t. If we approached physical fitness the same way, we’d buy the most expensive treadmill at Walmart, set it up in the den and then go sit in our recliners waiting for our weight and blood pressure to decline.

Schools that challenge students will raise student performance, while those that slack off in the name of helping everyone pass will bore the students with the most potential, stifling their development, and create a false sense of accomplishment in students with less academic potential.

Such research, no doubt, was key to the state Board of Education in Mississippi devising the more rigorous MCT2 assessments now being used and to increase math and science requirements for a high school diploma. It has been an unpopular, but necessary move.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail.

In terms of college readiness, the ACT report card on Mississippi’s class of 2009, showed:

• One in 10 ready for college work of any type compared to 23 percent nationwide.

• 57 percent ready for college English compared to 67 percent nationwide.

• 20 percent ready for college algebra compared to 42 percent nationwide.

• 34 percent ready for college social sciences compared to 53 percent nationwide.

• 14 percent ready for college biology compared to 28 percent nationwide.

While some have seen the state’s lower-than-average scores as a reason to keep lowering standards, former state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds saw it as a basis for making school more rigorous. If superintendents, principals and teachers would follow through, the result would be significant.

Don’t believe it? Back to the ACT figures. Among students who had taken college prep core and advanced placement classes, the gap between Mississippi and the rest of the nation narrowed markedly. Specifically, 33 percent of Mississippi students who had taken more than core courses were deemed ready on all college benchmarks compared to 55 percent nationwide.

Some would say that’s only natural, given that only “smart kids” take optional, harder courses available in most districts. Another distinction, however, is between students who “apply themselves,” as our grandparents said, and those who don’t.

While we’re at it, it’s often nonsense to compare Mississippi students with those in other states. A higher proportion here are from poor families, single-parent families and families where school work just isn’t a family tradition. But that’s no reason to expect less or set the bar lower. Education is funded at lower per-capita rate here than in most places, but money is a fickle factor, too. Teachers in the Northeast make more, but they live where the median home price today is still $241,000 compared to $157,000 in the South.

The ACT is the best indicator of “norms” and trends available to educators. Consider this: For five years, the gap between Mississippi’s average composite score and the national composite has remained the same as both moved slightly upward. If one doesn’t accept the proposition that Mississippi students are not as smart as students elsewhere (and I don’t), then that leaves only a couple of explanations. One is that students are not sufficiently challenged by their families and their schools. And it does take both, in partnership, to achieve.

Public schools owe all children the same opportunities. They can open the door, but parents and their children have to do more than walk through.