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Editorial: Making the Grade

The Town Meeting form of government has been sadly fragmented in Hartford by the town’s new charter, but this year the annual floor meeting, often an irrelevancy, yielded an instructive discussion about the town’s school system and its reputation in some quarters for not being up to par.

As staff writer Maggie Cassidy reported in the Sunday Valley News, the discussion touched on whether this reputation is rooted in reality or based on misperception. The distinction is important because the possible remedies are quite different: fundamental educational change on the one hand; or a “charm offensive,” in the words of one participant, on the other. And it matters a lot, because the reputation of a school system affects everything from property values to the ability to attract young families to the community to civic pride. To a certain extent, of course, perception becomes a kind of self-fulfilling reality. own. Anecdotally, at least, there is evidence of young families moving out of town once their children’s elementary school years are complete, before they enter the middle school and high school.

This raises the question of how to measure the quality of a school system. One obvious way is by analyzing student scores on standardized tests. At Saturday’s meeting, resident Bruce Riddle asked School Superintendent Tom DeBalsi how he planned to improve Hartford students’ scores on the New England Common Assessment Program tests, which he termed “scary.” DeBalsi and several board members acknowledged that they were deeply concerned about the scores, which, for example, showed only 28 percent of 11th-graders meeting or exceeding the standards in math this year.

That provided the opportunity for a wider discussion about the value of these testing regimens, led by newly elected School Board member Paul Keane, a retired teacher. He and others were highly critical of the way these tests can pigeon-hole students who may be able but are merely bad at taking tests, or who are late-bloomers.

There is certainly good reason to be skeptical of test scores as an ultimate measure of educational quality, but they are not irrelevant either. Over time, they provide a picture of one kind of student achievement, and it is a picture that has a comparative dimension in relation to other schools, the state as a whole, and to other years within the same school system.

We couldn’t help but note that the same day Cassidy’s story appeared, an op-ed in the Perspectives section by Barbara Couch, vice president at Hypertherm Inc., recounted the difficulty her company encounters in finding entry-level employees with the requisite math skills to fill what are stable and good-paying manufacturing jobs in the Upper Valley. If the point of education is to prepare students to successfully participate in the economic, social and civic life of their communities, then their actual proficiency in academic skills counts for a lot, and tests are one way to evaluate it.

What are the other qualities good school systems share? One is deep parental involvement in the education their children receive. Good schools make a real effort to encourage that participation — not merely in fundraising or field trip supervision and the like, but actual engagement in what goes on in the classroom. This can make professional educators uncomfortable, but it’s vital.

And there’s nothing that a school does more closely linked to students’ educational success than the quality of instruction they receive. Good teachers are worth their weight in gold, although they are certainly not paid like it in most districts. So a district’s ability to attract good teachers, contribute to their further development and retain their services is an important component of providing a good education.

Finally, good schools happen in large measure because the community is willing to support them financially. Hartford over the years has been exemplary in this regard, reflecting the value the community assigns to education. If the school system is currently found wanting, it is in spite of the taxpayers, not because of them.