How to make test scores better

If chests are swelling around San Francisco’s public schools this week, there’s good reason. The City’s students, for the second year, have performed better on standardized tests than their counterparts throughout the state. We may cheer the salutary trend — for a moment.

The district, obviously, is doing something right. By the district, of course, wemean administrators, teachers and parents, who over the past half-decade have mobilized to see to it that when children pass vertically from grade to grade, they do so deservedly. And this in a city with a kid-averse reputation.

There remain reasons, glaring reasons, not to cheer. Disparities in ethnic performance — white and Asian students at the top, Hispanic and African-American at the bottom — simply cannot be ignored. We do not buy for a moment the notion that race is academic destiny. Clearly, the acculturation of success, from infancy onward, should be promoted across our diverse communities.

Nor should local pride blind us to the lagging progress of students across California. For one thing, we’re looking arbitrarily back five years as one base among many. That was when the state got serious about measuring student progress. Deny it as the more politicized elements of our schools might, but the new seriousness coincided with a push by the Bush administration.

Our own preference is for the federal government to stay far away from local classrooms, especially because overall downward trends in proficiency have continued since President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education three decades ago. Shoveling more tax dollars into those classrooms, as if fertilizing the fields, by itself does not yield the sturdiest crops.

As we said, heartening as this and last year’s scores appear, the question remains: Up from what? Earlier generations, taught in far more modest schools, read and composed at far higher levels, knew history and geography in greater detail and could do their sums — all without the aid of computers. When comedian Jay Leno conducts his pop quizzes on the street, funny as those who play along may be, there’s something deadly serious about what his schtick reveals about our grim prospects for a learned republic.

Lest this be taken as a dyspeptic attack on the wired generation, it’s not.Indeed, cyberspace looks increasingly like the most promising classroom of all, its chief benefit being the self-propelling pace that the best educational reformers have long championed.

Exit exams do have their measurable uses, but Californians need to get past that debate. The rise of inexpensive cyber-learning competes with an outmoded, bureaucratic system that wants, contradictorily, to accommodate it. That means that the forces of competition — those who advocate school choice, market-oriented learning centers for the least among us, a withering away of the coercive system — must step up even more confidently than ever.

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