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Top school? Look to IPS

I'm not a fan of the best- and worst test-performer lists that newspapers – including my own – like to do. It's an unfortunate outgrowth of the USA Today style of journalism – quick and meaningless reads.

Students aren't race horses and their test scores shouldn't be reported as such. We wouldn't dream of posting lists of the worst finishers in a track or swim meet, but don't hesitate to point out which groups of students finished last on a standardized exam.

That said, this year's No. 1 best and worst are worth noting. The worst – White's Jr.-Sr. High School in Wabash County – perfectly illustrates my initial point. The school is actually White's Residential & Family Services, a group home for children and teens. The kids are placed there by child protection or juvenile probation offices or by private placement. In other words, it is home – and school – to kids who have been dealt the worst hand imaginable. Most have likely been abused or neglected, or at least come from family situations offering no foundation for success in education or life.

The teachers and staff members at White's have taken on some of the most challenging work you can imagine – supporting and nurturing kids with problems that a teacher in a suburban district will likely never see. For those teachers to have their work singled out as the worst in the state is low – instead they deserve our thanks and every accolade possible.

The best-performing school in the state is worth noting because the Merle Sidener Gifted Academy is part of Indianapolis Public Schools. Yes –IPS, the district used by Indiana public education critics as a stick to beat up all public schools. It's a magnet school, of course, with admission based on "a thinking skills test, teacher recommendations, and reading and math achievement scores."

Schools with selective admission policies, including the state's new voucher schools, will inevitably have higher education scores. But the fact that IPS, which critics would have you believe can't do anything right – is the district that managed to pull off a 99.6 percent passing rate at one of its schools deserves recognition. Sixty-five percent of the students at Merle Sidener come from homes meeting the guidelines for free- or reduced-price lunch. Fifty-eight percent are black, Hispanic or multi-racial.

Clearly, IPS can do something right if it can achieve the highest ISTEP+ passing rate among all public schools. Carmel Clay's Smoky Row Elementary, with less than five percent of its students qualifying for a free- or reduced-price lunch, couldn't do better than a 95.7 percent passing rate.

Instead of a shallow view of school performance, let's take an honest look at who's making the most progress. It's cruel and unproductive to attack schools, teachers and students with the greatest challenges while holding up other groups for accomplishing little with the most advantages.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at