Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgia released its statewide SAT scores last week, and the news was familiar but not good. Scores in Georgia declined an average of six points from 2010’s averages, down to 1445 combined for the Math, Critical Reading, and Writing sections of the test.
The standard excuse for Georgia’s poor performance in state by state comparisons of test scores has become so engrained in discussions of SAT’s that it has become the lead in Georgia Department of Education press releases to announce the declining scores. While test scores are down, the percentage of Georgia high school students taking the test rose six percent. A full 80% of the class of 2011 took the SAT, far more than will attend college next year.
State School Superintendent John Barge, serving in his first year in his new position, addressed the number of students taking the test directly, stating that “I believe we have to do a better job of educating our students as to what exam is needed to get into the appropriate postsecondary institution. We have far more students taking the SAT than the number going to four year universities. Many of our postsecondary institutions don’t require the SAT for students to be accepted. When we roll out career pathways next year, the appropriate postsecondary tests needed for enrollment will be clearly outlined for students.”
The career pathways noted by Barge will be a huge change for Georgia’s high school curriculum, and unique nationwide. Students will make choices before their junior year for a career path, and take classes geared to their post high school plans. This differs from Georgia’s current approach implemented by former State School Superintendent Kathy Cox, which delivered a relatively uniform college preparatory curriculum to all high school students. While Cox’s tougher curriculum standards received national praise from education groups, critics charged that the one size fits all approach limited options for non-college bound students, pushing more towards dropping out.
Under the new plan, students would take the same core classes during their freshman and sophomore years, and then be divided into “career clusters” during their junior and senior years. College bound students would focus on a traditional advanced regimen of Advanced Placement and college prep classes, but tailored a bit to their desired field of study. Alternate paths for those looking to attend a two year college or directly enter the workforce would also be available.
In total, there will be 16 clusters that students may choose from, ranging including agriculture, business, and health sciences. Regardless of the path chosen, all students would be college eligible upon graduation. Students would be able to change paths within their junior or senior years, with career exploration being the emphasis. Barge notes that college is a very expensive time for students to try different education paths toward differing careers, and wants to encourage students to test the material that will be the basis of their employment early to ensure a good fit.
A similar approach to high school education is being implemented in other states such as Florida and Wisconsin, though Georgia will be the first to build in career track requirements as a condition to obtaining a diploma.
The approach has potential beyond placing window dressing on Georgia’s average SAT scores. Employers in Georgia continue to note that despite record unemployment, many positions go unfilled because of a lack of skilled candidates available to meet their requirements. Georgia’s new approach to career preparation within the high schools should enable schools to match graduate’s skills to those needed by Georgia employers for those who do not plan to attend higher education immediately upon graduation.
Many other states have tried various matters to suppress those who take the SAT as a manner to raise scores, rather than deal directly with the fundamental education offered to students. Georgia has tried raising the rigor of the curriculum offered to students, and will now supplement the higher standards for college bound students with career education alternatives for those who seek employment after high school.
Georgia should be applauded by avoiding gimmicks such as restricting who can take the SAT, and instead offering true alternatives within the educational system that better suit their needs. But applause alone will not improve test scores or more importantly, educational quality. Georgians at all levels must continue to find innovative solutions to improve our schools, and more importantly, the lives of those who graduate from them.