Between the lines

Between the lines By David Lias It's impossible to ignore the change in climate.

Soon, it will no longer be simply summer in South Dakota. We also will find ourselves immersed in the back-to-school season.

Signs of the new season's impending arrival are everywhere. Students of all ages are on a shopping binge, stocking up on everything from backpacks and pencils to the latest fashions for fall.

For many adults, this new season sparks feelings of nostalgia, prompting them to share memories (exaggerated at times) of what being a student was like when they were a kid. The stories � seasoned with claims of walking two miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways � all have a familiar flavor to them.

It's about this time of the year when many adults also begin to question the quality of education their children are receiving. What sort of talk can one easily hear at a typical coffee klatsch?

"Test scores are dropping like stones in a well. Illiteracy is rising like a hot-air balloon. Textbooks are being dumbed down. Tests are being dumbed down. Everything's being dumbed down."

Headlines in this week's newspapers across the state only add fuel to the fire. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that average scores on ACT, a major college entrance test, declined slightly this year in South Dakota.

So, is our younger generation getting dumber? It may be easy to come to that conclusion, but once you research the topic, you soon learn that its impossible to exactly know, based on standardized test scores, if our youth are doing better in school, despite the conventional wisdom of the day.

The warning bells about kids getting dumber started ringing in the 1960s. That's when SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores really took a dive. The SAT is taken by more than a million college-bound kids every year. Average scores in both the math and verbal portions of this test peaked in 1963 (when I was a second-grader).

They slid after that, steeply and then slowly, until they bottomed out in the early 1980s. Math scores then began to rise, but verbal scores remained stagnant. Those low-scoring kids of 1970 are almost 50 now. They are the ones designing cell phones that can fit in your shirt pocket.

The average national SAT scores from 1987 through 1998 don't look too bad, really. These scores indicate we are holding steady. And the latest math scores are about the same as in glorious 1963. That should settle it, right? Numbers have no place to hide. If the numbers are the same, it means nothing has changed, right?

Oh, but wait. Sometime from 1963 to 1987, the college board "recentered" the scores, which means the whole scale shifted south. Someone who scored 507 in 1987 would have scored about 494 in 1963. If the numbers are unchanged, that actually means kids are doing worse!

Got that? "Same" means "worse."

So kids are dumber? Not that simple ?

A college education was once the domain of the wealthy and privileged. But beginning in the 1960s, this opportunity was extended to other, less privileged groups. More enrollees meant more test takers. Many of these students had attended lower-quality elementary and secondary schools, and this affected their test scores. So if scores haven't changed, it must mean kids are smarter.

Got that? "Same" actually means "smarter."

Oh, but wait. Since 1963, a booming test-prep industry has emerged. Many kids now train for the SAT in classes that promise to raise their scores by as much as 100 points. So, wow, if scores are unchanged since 1963, it must mean students are dumber now.

Got that? "Same" means "dumber."

I could give you four more oh-but-waits just on the SAT, but you get the point. Flip over every statistic and you'll find that the dirt under each number is crawling with worms.

Maybe we should focus more on the tests we're repeatedly forcing our youth to take, rather on fears that our kids aren't as intelligent as older generations.

Standardized tests can't tell us if our kids are getting smarter or dumber. Why? They test what's easy to measure, not necessarily what is important. And, the sample is self-selected. We aren't testing the same kids time after time. We're only testing the same grade levels.

Each year's news story comparing this year's ACT or SAT scores to last year's is merely a comparison of apples and oranges.

Don't let idea of a better

name for bridge be ignored

Several weeks ago, we noted that we were disappointed that the Vermillion City Council was told that the new bridge that will link Vermillion with Nebraska will formally be known as the Newcastle/Vermillion Bridge.

We added that we thought everyone involved � and when you stop and think about it, we're all involved, since this bridge is being built with our tax money � could find a much better name for the bridge.

As we noted earlier, we believe the bridge's name should do more than simply describe the two closest points it will connect.

We believe the bridge will be much more memorable to everyone who travels on it with a name that at least demonstrates that we have an awareness of the unique history of our region of the Midwest.

Floating an idea like this one is much like blowing up a balloon and giving it a tap to see how long you can keep it airborne.

Judging by the letters to the editor we've received recently, we have at least one or two people out there in the community who are trying to keep the idea of a new bridge name alive. They don't want to see the idea simply deflated like a punctured balloon. The letters have helped to keep the idea afloat. We fear, however, that time, like gravity on a floating balloon, will eventually take its toll on the idea of a better bridge name.

We feel it's time to start hearing from people in a more "official" capacity about this issue. The Vermillion Development Company, for example, recently launched Growing Vermillion, an effort to address needed growth in population, jobs, housing, quality of life and infrastructure improvements.

One of Growing Vermillion's identified scopes of work is regional cooperation to develop concepts that will assist in the growth of the area. Discussing a better name for the bridge should be one of Growing Vermillion's goals.

We aren't going to put all of the pressure on the VDC, however. We hope that the Vermillion Area Chamber of Commerce can be persuaded to campaign for a better bridge name.

There's room for others institutions with considerable pull in the Vermillion community to jump on the bandwagon including the W.H. Over Museum, the Shrine to Music Museum, the Buffalo Run Winery, the Austin Whittemore House, and naturally, our county and city governments.

Don't let a good idea run out of air.

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