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Wagging the calendar
A later class start is fine, but move isn't driven by whats best for students
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We take a brief pause from trying to digest the Gainesville school system's budget from a distant galaxy long enough to consider another school story that popped up last week.

After years of beginning the school year in early to mid-August, it now appears that local districts will consider pushing the first day of classes back a few weeks, but not for reasons previously raised.

Last week, state school superintendent Kathy Cox suggested the move to allow state education officials to better assess scores from the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.

So many students failed portions of the CRCT this past school year that a large number had to retake the test this summer. The state won't be able to figure those scores into each school's No Child Left Behind standards until September, well after the school year begins. So Cox figures that a later start next year would help the state make those evaluations before classes are too far along.

This year, classes in Gainesville, Hall County and many area districts begin Aug. 7. Most parents likely will support a later start, as will a good many administrators and teachers.

The early August launch has led many to complain about a shortened summer vacation season. Many families find it harder to squeeze in a trip during the abbreviated break. Amusement parks and other businesses have complained about losing traffic and workers because kids are headed to class instead of down a water slide. And drivers and students have had to endure stifling hot buses during sweltering August afternoons.

But even if welcome, the reasoning for a calendar change is suspect. It looks as if the CRCT has school officials flummoxed and that the tail is wagging the dog when it comes to making decisions on what's best for students.

This past year's test scores produced an appallingly high failure rate in most subjects. Cox threw out scores from the social studies part of the test because it was learned that students had not been taught the material on the exam, leading to a failure rate of more than 70 percent statewide.

Many solid A and B students scored lower on the math and reading portion of the CRCT than expected, which third-, fifth- and eighth-graders must pass to move on to the next grade. Some 38 percent flunked the math portion in Georgia.

As a result, a high number of students were forced to retake the test or go to summer school to make up ground, shortening their summer even further. State officials say the lower scores were the result of a more demanding state curriculum, and that it may take a few years for student scores to catch up.

Yet for years, administrators defended the early start to the school year based on the semester system that allowed them to wrap up final exams before the Christmas holiday break. The theory was that students might forget key material over the two-week vacation and not test as well in January. The early August start, however inconvenient, was supposed to aid instruction, the claim went.

So has the state now decided that it's more important to assess test scores early in the school year than have students score better on their final exams? How odd.

This move, like many we've seen, doesn't seem geared so much toward students' needs but over concerns of how schools are ranked for Adequate Yearly Progress. The test scores help determine which schools make the AYP grade; those that don't for two years running must take a number of steps to get in line, and that affects how schools, teachers and administrators are evaluated. In that case, it's more about judging the performance of the grown-ups, not the children, in reaching the accepted standards.

But instead of fretting over when summer school scores are posted and factored in, couldn't the state put a bit more effort into helping kids pass the CRCT the first time? Starting, perhaps, with teaching the right material to students? That would be a bigger help in the long run, it would seem.

One local administrator sure thinks so. "We ought to be basing the school schedule on what's best for boys and girls to be learning, not to be jumping through hoops to make more kids pass tests on a retest," Hall County school superintendent Will Schofield said. "What we ought to be focusing on is getting tests graded and turned around in a timely manner ... and getting more students to pass the test the first time."

Amen. And yet, we still believe, as do most parents, that a later class launch is an overall good idea, should local districts decide to go in that direction. For a number of practical reasons, it is preferable for most families and shouldn't be a detriment to learning.

Ultimately, there needs to be a school calendar that can combine what's best for families with a high level of instruction. Students should be allowed to have a reasonable summer break, head back to class in late August and then face a tough, well-taught academic curriculum that will help them succeed.

That model worked for decades, and there's no reason it can't again with the right emphasis on the right subjects. After all, when the bell rings is not nearly as important as what happens once it does.

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