"There's more to a school than just the test."

When a member of the Jackson County Board of Education made that comment at a recent board meeting, he was echoing part of a rising chorus that has come to question the value of evaluating students and schools based on test scores.

That's not a new complaint. Teachers of "soft" school courses have long complained that their classes — physical education, band/chorus, home economics, CATE — are just as important as the traditional core academic courses of Math, English and History.

But it's been the latter courses that get most of the attention. Standardized tests don't measure music accomplishment and other non-core subjects so those core classes get the most focus. Schools that do well in Math and English testing typically get the glory while schools with superior ag programs are often off the public's radar.

Over the last two decades, that focus on improving students' mastery in core classes has increased, leading to more "high-stakes" testing as a form of accountability, a move designed to pressure schools to improve their academic achievement.

But as that movement gained momentum, parents began to push back, complaining about too much homework and too much "teaching to the test" mentality in their kids' schools.

Today, the pendulum appears to be swinging back as school systems re-evaluate their focus on standardized testing and the related focus on core academic subjects.

In the local area, the Jackson County School System is leading that movement. There was discussion at that recent BOE meeting about too much homework in the system, something administrators acknowledged. And there was discussion about creating a class of practical knowledge for students so they could go out into the world with some confidence about how to handle routine tasks of adulthood.

But the system's move toward broadening its focus beyond the core academic subjects has been in the works for several years. It is that movement which underpins the system's plans to open a large college and career academy in 2021 on the current campus of Jackson County Comprehensive High School.

While the academy will offer some high-level academic classes for those wanting to get a jump on their college careers, it will also expand the system's offerings in technical education. That will be done, in part, by establishing partnerships with local industries for training programs, internships, etc. and with area technical colleges.

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There are a lot of threads to this issue, but in the big picture, this movement toward a more holistic approach to school is part of a major shift in the nation's education culture.

You see that at the college level where the high cost of tuition today has led to a movement toward majors that have a high return-on-investment profile. Some majors, many in the liberal arts, simply never pay off for students who've taken on heavy debt loads.

Some are even questioning the value of any college degree given today's high cost. While college graduates on average make much more than those with just a high school diploma, that begins to look different when you factor in college debt.

While this anti-liberal arts movement has hurt some small, liberal arts schools, other colleges are bursting at the seams with students. In addition, online college classes for non-traditional students has become a new factor in how we as a nation provide education.

All of those trends are starting to work their way down into high school planning. Online classes are playing a larger role in many high schools and the movement to focus on career technical classes is popular in areas where a lower percentage of students go to a traditional college.

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There are other shifts in the larger community that are also affecting these trends. Growth in the local community is pushing high schools to turn out graduates better prepared for the workforce.

The problem is, the kinds of jobs in our economy is shifting more rapidly than any training program can match. New jobs are being created every day that were unheard of just a few years ago. Old, traditional jobs are dying off as society continues its transition from an industrial economy to an information economy.

In the old days, you could train someone with a job skill that would last a lifetime; today, the skills change as the jobs change.

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Despite those challenges, there are some things that local school systems can do — and are doing — that touches on the fundamentals.

First, local school systems are increasingly putting a focus on meeting the emotional needs of students. The Jefferson City School System is taking an increased focus on that with a new program called The 7 Mindsets. Not all students come from stable home lives; some have mental and emotional issues which are not being addressed at the family level; and schools recognize that students who are ill-equipped emotionally can be disruptive in the school environment and typically perform lower academically. Schools need to put more resources into school counselors, psychologists and nurses in an effort to help more of these students.

Second, local school systems recognize that one of the fundamental tools which makes a difference in student success is the ability to communicate. Whether a high school graduate is going to college, a technical school, the military, or directly into the workforce, having the ability to write readable sentences and articulate information clearly is a huge skill to master. More and more, schools are focused on building reading and writing skills across their curriculum. No matter what the job or career path, those who can communicate clearly will achieve more than those who can't.

Finally, schools are looking at earlier counseling for students to make a decision about their post-high school plans. A student who is going to college, especially a 4-year research institution, needs a very different high school curriculum than a student who is not college-bound. In the past, schools were reluctant to pigeon-hole a student early so that all students would have college as an option no matter what they did in high school. But that is no longer practical. In a way, we're seeing the American high school system shift toward European models where students choose a career path at an early age, then take the appropriate classes and internships to go that route.

Like much of the American economy and society, schools exist in an era of creative destruction. For a long time, public education has been immune to those forces, grounded as it is in tradition and narrow political thinking.

No more. The wave of change that is roiling the economy is now washing over public education and is increasingly being embraced by a changing education establishment.

It'll be interesting to see what our local high schools look like in 10 or 20 years as a result of the decisions being made today.

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

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