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Education "good" news isn't so good, but neither is "bad" news so bad

There’s good news and bad news for Louisiana education, but the bad actually might be good and the good bad.

The good news on the surface is that American College Testing standardized testing composite scores did not go down; in fact, they have inched up over the past few years. Around 85 percent, one of the highest proportions in the country, of Louisiana high school students take this test, mostly because almost all four-year public universities in the state require certain scores for admission and Tuition Opportunity Program for Students scholarships.

The bad news is that at 19.8, this score resides well below the national average of 20.9 (which, worse, itself reflects only minimal ability and also remains unchanged from last year). One could argue that because more Louisiana students take the ACT than in almost any state (save four), marginal students who might not take it in other states (without a TOPS scholarship waved in their face as incentive) are not included in the totals to dilute downward the average score. But, as it turns out, among the states that have the ACT as a requirement for entrance to a public university, only Mississippi scores lower (it being one of the four states where more students take it than Louisiana).

To bring in more pessimism, Louisiana has a significant number of private school enrollees – almost 18.6 percent as opposed to a southern regional average of 8.7 and national average of 10.1 percent. And private school students do score better, driving up the state’s overall average score. This can be inferred because while the state total includes these students, district averages do not. In 2005, only 15 of the 68 districts scored at or above the state average – a mixture of higher- and lower-population districts. Equating all public schools students nationwide would see Louisiana’s average score even lower relative to others.

So, what’s the ostensibly bad news? That dropout rates have surged almost 24 percent in the past two years for which statistics are available, the increase largely driven by black males. Nobody wants to see youngsters leaving school without a diploma or GED as their life chances become significantly worse without education to make for success in today’s increasingly-demanding world.

But, at the same time, consider the fact that dropout numbers, even at this level, are only 34.2 percent of where they were five years ago. This is despite schooling standards increasing throughout the period. Any recent increase could be interpreted as the effect of higher standards putting the bite on more people.

There does seem to be some validity, however, to the complaint that the higher proportion of black males being sent to special education classes who then tend to drop out in higher proportions. This is no accident since in the past couple of decades a cottage industry has spawned which has continued to expand the definition of “disability” from genuine conditions to include those that are more a result of a failure of will and motivation than any real handicap. For example, “emotionally disturbed” now qualifies a student as “disabled;” it’s no accident that in the past three decades, the number of students deemed “disabled” has quadrupled nationally.

Today, these conditions are catered to and less discipline is used in the schools to solve behavioral problems. And why wouldn’t we expect black males to exhibit more of these kinds of problems, being much more likely to come from broken homes and single parents, whose attitudes are shaped by a set of government programs that for so long encouraged poor behavior? With less than a decade of incomplete welfare reform under our belts, it will be many years before schools encounter fewer children not brought up in an environment more conducive to attitudes of achievement and personal responsibility that should ameliorate “emotional disturbance.”

So while the good news about education isn’t as good as we might think, the bad news isn’t so bad. Around this state, I’ll take that and hope we keep aiming even higher.

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