Copyrighted material


by John Springer

Is Public Education Working? How Would We Know?

(PNS) SAN FRANCISCO -- I've gone to both a poorly funded, public middle school and a rich, private high school. I have seen both ends of the spectrum. It's a stretch to say a school determines whether a kid goes to a good college because ultimately, it's up to the kid to work hard. But I will say that there are differences, in my experience, in how public and private schools motivate students to work toward higher goals. And because of this I wonder why private school students are exempt from taking the High School Exit Exam. Is this a double standard in effect?

The private high school I attended averaged around 75 students per grade. While the small community generated more gossip, because everyone knew everyone else, it also increased competition among the small student body. The competitiveness made for an intense atmosphere. Students would compare scores and grades in order to see where they stood in relation to their peers. During the tough stretches in junior and senior year, students at my high school would lose an unhealthy amount of sleep in order to finish the heavy workload piled onto them every day. While it seemed like we were constantly slaving over an Advanced Placement (AP) biology test, my public school friends were getting much more leisure time.

Coming from a laid-back but poorly funded middle school, I was shocked by the change to private school. It was difficult to adjust to the intense working conditions. I discovered that in private schools it is not uncommon to see someone taking eight to 10 AP courses. AP courses are college-level curriculums that demand extra work from students. In my sophomore year of high school, all but two people in my class of 79 students decided to take the AP U.S. history class. Our advisors encouraged us to take it, even though we knew it would be difficult.

But at many public high schools it is rare to see someone taking on such a difficult schedule. Students aren't encouraged individually to the same degree. I experienced this firsthand at my middle school. Overcrowded classrooms in our public schools are also detrimental to students' ability to learn. At my high school the classes rarely rose above 16 or 17 people. This helped the teachers spend more individual time with their students.

So how is it fair that public school students have to take the high school exit exam while private school students don't? If the public school system isn't motivating enough kids to challenge themselves, the schools can't blame poor results on the exit exam on anyone but themselves. Unless schools start actively preparing and motivating the students for the materials needed on the Exit Exam, the test shouldn't be administered as a requirement to graduate.

For me, the end of this school year will be an exciting end to a long period of hard work. It's a shame that, to unprepared students who have to take the exit exam, this time of year is a pressure-filled nightmare. How can you determine a high school diploma on one 45-minute test? Even kids who are adequately prepared could fail the test if they are bad at working under pressure. Not everyone can work efficiently under time constraints. Giving the test to individuals who haven't been sufficiently trained in test taking is too much to ask.

I agree that something needs to be done about the poor state of public schools today. But how is a 45-minute test going to help the kids who really don't deserve to graduate? I just don't think you can accurately judge something this crucial with a test. The assessment needs to happen during the actual years of high school, not at the very end.

After experiencing such a rigorous curriculum at my private high school, I do have my criticisms of their system. However, I am grateful that my last four years have adequately prepared me for the road ahead. If public schools today could administer half the support for education that private schools like mine did, perhaps the exit exam would be fair. But you can't expect unprepared and unmotivated students to excel at algebra concepts and grammar rules they haven't learned.

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Albion Monitor   May 22, 2006   (

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