Ga. closes honesty gap in test scores

Five long years ago, Georgia and more than 40 other states adopted tough new standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in elementary and secondary schools. Now we’ve reached a critical milestone in this effort, as the public got to see for the first time scores on the new tests aligned to the standards.

The news was sobering. Fewer than 40 percent of Georgia’s students are on track in reading and math. Though the scores may shock many, let us explain why people shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

First, it’s important to remember why so many states started down this path. Under federal law, every state must test children every year in grades three through eight and once in high school to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.

But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient.” Unfortunately, most states, including Georgia, set a very low bar. They “juked the stats.” As late as 2013, Georgia was reporting virtually all of its fourth graders were proficient in reading, whereas a national assessment put the number at less than 30 percent. That was an enormous “honesty gap” — among the largest in the country.

The result was a comforting illusion most children were on track to succeed in college, carve out satisfying careers, and stand on their own two feet. To put it plainly, it was a lie. Imagine being told year after year you’re doing just fine, only to find when you apply for college or a job you’re simply not as prepared as you need to be.

Such experiences were not isolated. Every year, more than half of Georgia’s students entering the state’s public colleges must take “remedial” courses when they arrive on campus. Many of those students will leave without a degree or any kind of credential. That’s a lousy way to start one’s adult life.

The most important step to fixing this problem is to ensure our children are ready for the next grade, and when they turn 18, for college or work. Several national studies, including analyses of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show just 35 to 40 percent of high school graduates leave our education system at the “college prepared” level.

Considering that 20 percent of our children don’t even make it to graduation day, that means maybe one-third of our kids nationally are getting to that college-ready mark. (Not coincidentally, about a third of young people today complete a four-year college degree.)

The new standards should help boost college readiness — and college completion — by significantly raising expectations, starting in kindergarten. But we shouldn’t be surprised Georgia found fewer than 40 percent of its students are on track for college. In fact, that’s what we should expect. Parents, in other words, are finally learning the truth.

This is a big shift, but a necessary one, from the Lake Wobegon days when, as in Garrison Keillor’s fictional town, all the children were above average. Parents and taxpayers should resist the siren song of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack the new standards or the associated tests. They may not be perfect, but they are finally giving parents, educators and taxpayers a much more honest assessment of how our children are doing.

Virtually all kids aspire to go to college and prepare for a satisfying career. Now, at last, we know if they’re on track to do so.