Spring’s SAT results for Georgia’s public schools were released last week and now the second-guessing begins. Critics of public school systems will find plenty to complain about. Only half of those taking the SAT last spring were considered “college ready” with a score of 1,550 or higher. Overall scores were stagnant both locally and across the nation.

But what do the SAT scores really tell us? There are several ways to look at the results. You can look at year-over-year increases or decreases for a particular high school, although such a snapshot is misleading since there are variances in the students who take the test each year. Some classes are just smarter than other classes.

And there are changes in the SAT every year that alter how the test is scored. If every school improves, then maybe it isn’t because of smarter students, but rather because the test itself was easier.

Perhaps a better way to look at SAT results is to see where a high school ranks relative to other high schools in the area and the state. If a school is in the top one-third of state results on any standardized test, then chances are that school is doing a pretty good job.

Still, the SAT is a narrow measure of any high school. That test is designed for college-bound students. If a student isn’t going to college, his or her results on the SAT are meaningless in the big picture. The SAT doesn’t measure how well a school prepares non-college bound students for the workforce, or to be citizens in the community. In fact, no test really measures that kind of data because that is such a subjective issue.

The SAT does tell us two things, however.

First, it tells a college if an individual student is ready for college level work. I’m not sure that means very much today since colleges appear to be accepting a large number of students who aren’t ready and who need a lot of remedial work before they begin regular college classes. You have to wonder if money and the desire to “grow” a campus has as much to do with accepting some kids as the SAT does.

The second thing the SAT tells us is about the community a school is located in. Simply put, high schools that consistently have high average SAT scores reflect a stronger, better-educated, wealthier community than a school that has poor SAT results.

Culture explains everything — politics, economics, religion, education and life. Some cultures are strong, stable and resilient. Other cultures are weak, frayed and poor. That’s true for nation-states as well as individual communities.

If you overlay a map of Georgia with these SAT results, you’ll find that for the most part, top performing schools are located in wealthy suburban Atlanta neighborhoods. We can deride the suburbs as being vast tracts of insipid housing, commercial sprawl and soulless towns, but the reality is the state’s highest performing public high schools are located in those areas.

Take Walton High School in suburban Cobb County for example. Walton had a whopping 607 students take the SAT last spring and those students had an average of 1,741 on the SAT, the fourth highest in the state (second highest if you consider only traditional high schools.)

Closer to home are the two high schools in Oconee County, which is the affluent suburb of Athens-Clarke. Both Oconee high schools scored above 1,550 and were in the top 45 of all high schools in the state.

Compare those results to Southwest High School in Macon where only 87 students took the test and had a composite score average of only 1,078. Weak, decaying communities lead to weak, under-performing high schools.

So for the most part, high school SAT averages tell us as much about the community students come from as it does the school itself. You can’t have successful high schools in a community where families are fractured, where drugs dominate and where lives revolve around entitlement programs as the main source of subsistence. A failed culture will create failing schools.

That isn’t to say that public schools aren’t without internal problems. The power of teacher unions in some states is frightening and the constant experimentation with inane curriculum is maddening. Public schools have earned much of the derision they get from citizens tired of all the drama.

Even so, we couldn’t take the faculty of a top-performing school like Walton and have it inhabit Southwest in Macon and expect dramatically better results. The community kids come from and its core cultural values has much more to do with academic success and failure than does the quality of teachers or administrators. Walton is successful because a majority of parents in that community provide stable homes and demand their kids do well. The community around Southwest in Macon doesn’t have that dynamic.

All of which is troubling. With a few exceptions, the state can’t do much to fix its worst public schools. Improving teacher quality won’t do it. More money won’t do it. Changing the curriculum won’t do it. In fact, there are no quick public policy directives that will overcome the negative influence of a broken community culture.

So we are left with a situation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Successful schools will continue to be successful for the foreseeable future because they will attract the kind of community residents who value education and who will support educational excellence. Meanwhile, students from broken communities will continue to flounder and fail because they are powerless to change their cultural environment. And while a few kids from these troubled communities might sneak out and make something of their own lives, they will have little influence in changing the lives of the vast number of their peers who will forever plod around in the swamp of a broken culture.

We hear a lot of how our society, especially its politics, has become increasingly polarized. This is why that trend will continue. Cultural and economic segregation will continue to draw more hardened demographic lines as people migrate to their respective cultural values. The educated and wealthy will circle around communities of success while the uneducated and poor will languish and get further behind.

That wasn’t always true in this country. We like to think of the U.S. as the land of opportunity. There was a time when the difference at the top of the economic spectrum in most communities wasn’t nearly as far apart from the bottom as it is today. There was a time when even those who were considered economically “poor” came from a relatively stable community culture that rewarded hard work and valued education. Upward mobility was possible.

That’s much more difficult today as various communities in the nation have become increasingly destabilized. Distorted cultural values have become so toxic in some communities that nothing will help change it. No government program can fix those self-induced problems.

Success breeds success. Failure breeds failure.

That’s true in business, economics, athletics and academics.

An objective look at these SAT results is — sadly — further evidence of that.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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