The H.O.P.E. Scholarship: Meritocracy or Mediocrity?

Helping Outstanding Students Educationally. The first letter of each word of the preceding phrase forms the acronym, H.O.P.E., which when simplified results in the noun “Hope,” as commonly used in the phrase “The Hope Scholarship.”

In this essay, I will assume that it should be clear to any reader that the acronym H.O.P.E. when simplified “Hope” is a homonym of the noun “hope,” and if you don’t know the meaning of homonym, I will further assume you are a graduate of, or a student attending a public high school in Georgia.

It is unfortunate that Governor Miller allowed the abuse of a perfectly fine word, hope, meaning, as defined at to cherish a desire with anticipation. I have great respect for Zell Miller, but in his zeal to sell a pre-k program, in his desire to fund college scholarships, and in his campaign to have Georgia voters approve a lottery to fund educational improvements, he had created a catchy but imperfect acronym to sell the program.

Good students don’t hope for academic success, they work for it. Saying, “I hope I make an “A” on an exam” really means, to an outstanding student, “I prepared well, I studied the material diligently, both in the textbook and in my class notes,  I should definitely earn a “A” on this exam!”   The use of the phrase, “I hope,” by a good student, implies either a genuine humility or, as often, a false modesty. Well prepared students achieve, average students do not.

Outstanding academic students will be well prepared to continue academic achievement after graduation from high school; however, academic achievement should never be used to predict post-graduate outcomes in any area other than continued academic advancement. Personal and financial success is not predicated on academic achievement, nor is satisfaction or happiness. The ability to test well, score well on academic subjects and tests and measurements of academic aptitude should never be seen as an indicator of superior life achievement or even as an indication of higher value to society at large, and government in particular.

The failure of our current state-wide educational system is a system failure, it does not reflect on the intelligence of Georgia students; rather, it reflects poorly on the systems we use to educate our students, on the methods we use to train our teachers, and on the failed policies of our Governor, the members of our General Assembly, and the archaic and intransigent administrators, superintendents and principals we employ.

These foolish men and women would have us believe that education is a business, our schools are factories, and our teachers are monitors of testing paradigms designed to measure performance. They would incentify performance outcomes by measuring not what is learned by students, but by how well students do on standardized tests. Teachers and administrators income growth would solely depend on their student’s meeting testing criteria, and on metrics designed only to compare performance against hallmarks which will often not have any predictive value in the real world.

In other words, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Today’s children in Georgia will be no more prepared to meet their future, to achieve happiness and success, than the children of the last 40 years. The Governor and the esteemed and often earnest members of the Georgia General Assembly will at some not to distant time in the future declare victory, and discuss a new way to improve “test scores” without the least concern for the quality of life and happiness of our citizens.

And the Hope Scholarship will continue to be the costly, often ineffective farce it now is, existing to buy off middle-class voters and provide a year or two’s tuition, through eligibility by grade inflation, for under-educated, poorly prepared sustenance class students.

I don’t offer my opinion to chastise or denigrate either a struggling middle class or those sustenance class parents who want their children to have an equal opportunity for achievement. That desire, equality of opportunity does not exist today, frankly for members of either the middle or sustenance class. No one can refute my assertion that none of our state colleges and universities offer the opportunities of Harvard, Duke, Vanderbilt, Yale or Stanford, to name just a few universities whose cost of attendance precludes all but the wealthiest or highest achieving student.

Consider that while scholarships are available, most applicants accepted by these universities have attended superior public or in many cases well-heeled private schools, and almost always come from families where education is valued and achievement expected.

What should the Hope Scholarship accomplish? Should it reward supporters of the elected officials? Should it allow ill-prepared students to attend, fail and lose the scholarship? Or should it truly become the engine of academic renewal in Georgia?

There can be no question that the HOPE Scholarship should be awarded purely on the basis of merit. If the voters of Georgia had wanted an entitlement program, they would have rejected the constitutional amendment as written, and awaited an amendment that provided grants on the basis of need, perhaps using an income and asset based “sliding scale” metric to determine eligibility. No, the HOPE was specifically  intended to help outstanding students educationally, not helping financially disadvantaged students educationally. If the people of Georgia want an entitlement program, they should petition their lawmakers to pass legislation creating, and paying, for such a program.

The pressing question of the viability of the HOPE Scholarship program has been answered by the 2011 General Assembly, and signed into law by Governor Deal. Many citizens, including dependent students, self-supporting students, and parents are questioning the remedy as designed by the General Assembly. It ignores three major areas of concern, increased eligibility as a function of grade inflation, the determination of metrics to initially qualify for specific amounts, and the irresponsible actions of the Board of Regents regarding continual increases in tuition and fees. In the first case, the present legislation, HB326/AP, attempts to answer the problem of ever-increasing eligibility, that is, more eligible students applying for HOPE Scholarships, by crafting new “classes” of  scholarship as determined by grade point and SAT/ACT scores. In doing so, the Legislature has deferred its decision to two other authorities, one constitutional, The State Board of Education, and one not constitutional, the two “college board” testing agencies.  In the case of relying on grade point averages to determine eligibility for different classes of financial scholarship aid, the General Assembly completely ignores the lack of parity and comparability among Georgia’s many school districts. Does a student at McEachern High School in Cobb County with a 3.1 GPA know less than a student from Chandler County High School with a 3.5 GPA?  Does a student from Mays High School in the City of Atlanta with a 3.9 GPA know less than a student with a 3.9  GPA at North Atlanta High School or a student with a 3.9 GPA at The Marist School,  a private school in DeKalb County?

Should a student who scores an 80 on an exam be weighed equal to a student who scores an 89 on the same exam, a 9 percentage point difference, as  each score receives the same quality point value, 3.0? And in the same vein, a student who scores a 91 on the same exam, a 2 percentage point difference, will receive a quality point value of 4.0, drastically superior in quality point value, but only marginally better in demonstrable scholarship.

What is the purpose of letter grades? In almost every other critical measure of value, we use percentages to measure accomplishment. We elect our Governor and our Legislators by percentages, our US Senators and Representatives by percentages, we pay income and property taxes by percentages, we apportion legal responsibility and liability in civil law by percentages, we even measure audience share on cable TV by percentages, and of course all the public opinion polls that we so closely follow, and by which we are seemingly so greatly influenced, give results in percentages.

Letter grades are a convenience and contrivance, supported by educators and teaching unions as a means of making grading “easier, ” more egalitarian, and allowing teachers to inject their personal opinion, their like or dislike, of a student into the grading equation. After all, what is the quantifiable difference between a B+  and an A grade on a paper?  Teacher’s pet or teacher’s peeve? Anecdotal evidence would suggest that union teachers, those whose union leaders preach “fairness and equality” are most often the most likely to discriminate against those who hold contrasting views or values. Requiring all grades to be given as a percentage score, 0 to 100 percent; requiring all essays to have measurable value points, both in content and grammar; and requiring teachers to grade objectively will provide a reasonably accurate measurement of scholastic achievement within each school’s  grade levels.

In order to compare all schools within Georgia, scores from each school should be weighed according to state-wide standardized test results, with scores of 100 weighed equally, and corresponding percentile deviations from normal distributions determined by the test results of all students within a school, and school system. In this manner, the highest achieving students at each school through-out the state would be weighed equally, while a student with an 80 percentile score at an under performing school would possibly have a score of a lower percentile for HOPE Scholarship eligibility purposes.

Creating and implementing this system of eligibility would eliminate both the concern for “grade Inflation” and the reliance on culturally and economically biased so-called “standardized test” scores from the SAT/ACT! This system would assure economic and racial equality and opportunity, as the highest performing students in each school peer grouping would achieve eligibility regardless of that school’s overall performance, which is most often based on racial enrollment and economic conditions. Students who then failed to achieve at the level of the most gifted and determined students would find themselves grouped within appropriate achievement percentiles state-wide.

To accomplish satisfactory resolution of the second major area of concern, a simple solution is required,  one which keeps faith with the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, the provision of full tuition, fees and books to all eligible students. This is possible through the use of a “floating” eligibility standard or weighted percentage point value, determined one academic year in advance of award. Rising seniors who have maintained a percentile ranking equal to the current year award requirement would, as seniors have to meet a percentile standard, statistically determined and posted before the start of school of their senior year.  This percentile would have to be met for the senior year only, and would be based on the projection of available revenue to fund full scholarships for all eligible students expected to be enrolled and receiving the HOPE Scholarship in the following year. Depending on economic conditions, anticipated lottery revenue, and tuition increases, the percentile requirement could increase or decrease.  One year a senior’s 85 percentile may allow an award of scholarship; another year severe economic conditions may require an 88 percentile, and in better days, an award might be made with an 81 percentile. All HOPE Scholarship students would be fully funded for the duration of their degree studies, provided they maintained eligibility.

The General Assembly must move to limit the ability of the State Board of Regent’s to incur debt, and to increase tuition and fees. A four-year moratorium must be enforced preventing any increase in tuition and fees. Students and parents have a right to have a say in these policies, after all, tuition is a tax, a use fee, charged by a state authority for a service provided. The Board of Regents is a perfect example of “taxation without representation” and these wanton spending profligates must be curbed. The Board of Regents is accountable to no one, even the Governors of Georgia have failed to curb their spendthrift policies, all promulgated in the name of “improving education” and making the University System “World Class.”  Wouldn’t “Georgia Class” be just as impressive? WE need the best system we can afford, and students and parents need to be able to afford the education without being left in debt by some apologizing scalawag who thinks our best isn’t good enough. Write Governor Deal, write your Legislator, and take back education from the pretentious elitists who populate the State Board of Regents. After all,  it’s called “Public Education”






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