CATEGORY: EDT Editorials

AUTHOR: JOER

Editorial, Monday, Aug. 18, 1997

For eight years now, Mississippi high school juniors have taken the Functional Literacy Exam. They must pass it to earn their diplomas, and 97 percent do on the first try.

The idea behind the FLE that all students should be able to understand basic English and math concepts well enough to function in the world when they graduate is sound. As an accountability measure, it was a start. But overall scores for school districts may be misleading; the test is so easy that many students tend to slough it off, working only hard enough to get a passing grade. It's become something of a joke, as staff writer Monique Harrison found in a story in Sunday's Daily Journal.

Students' academic performance generally rises or falls according to the level of expectation. High expectations improve performance, even among students considered probable low achievers. One of the problems in Mississippi public education has been the assumption that the high poverty and low education levels of the state's population automatically mean our children will lag behind the rest of the nation. We take it almost for granted, for example, that national rankings like last week's release of ACT scores will find Mississippi at the bottom.

While there is no denying that socioeconomic factors weigh heavily in academic performance, there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy involved. If parents, teachers, administrators and the general public harbor low expectations for many students, low achievement is more likely to follow.

That's why it's encouraging that state Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham wants to make the FLE more challenging and has the support of many teachers and administrators. Mississippi's schools should set high standards for all students, and an exam that is supposed to measure the academic competency of high school graduates ought to exemplify those standards. The point, of course, would not be to bring down the passing rate to demonstrate the toughness of the test, but to challenge students to reach higher and be just as successful.

The FLE isn't the only area where standards can be raised. High school semester exam policies, for example, have been loosened in many school districts over the years to the point where exemptions are too numerous and easy to obtain. There would be value in tightening those requirements and raising performance expectations.

Setting high standards and demanding that all students meet them is not unfair, as some critics charge. The opposite in fact may be closer to the truth: it is unfair, and ultimately a disservice, not to expect the best from every student. Developing a more challenging FLE would be one way to make that point.

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