It is a great question, one that deserves a lot of thought and research: What is an excellent school? How can we tell if a school is excellent?

According to the State Report Card, a school is “excellent,” if it receives the state’s top rating. In the 2005-2006 school year, the Kettering School District, where I live, was deemed “excellent,” because it met the criteria for 24 out of 25 indicators. But in 2006-2007, Kettering’s rating slipped a notch, from “excellent” to “effective.” So now, Kettering is scrambling to achieve those needed indicators so that once again it will be rated “excellent.”

The State Report Card now evaluates schools based on 30 indicators — 28 of the indicators tell the outcome of student academic tests given in grades 3 to 11. Amazingly, there seems a consensus that strongly supports Ohio’s school evaluation method. Amazingly, people of experience and insight, who really know better, usually validate Ohio’s system that says, if you want to know if a school is excellent — just look at its test scores.

A recent comment about school evaluation, I found telling, was from a self-satisfied school board candidate. This candidate indicated that since his school system was rated “excellent,” there was not much left for his district to do, except to monitor and maintain its present excellent program. He seemed to completely buy into the idea that, because the state said so, his district is, in fact, “excellent.”

What is an excellent school? Certainly, the standards of school excellence that are affirmed by taxpayers of a democratic society should be quite different from the standards for school excellence advocated by leaders of a totalitarian state. But, according to Ohio standards, a school could be operated with a ruthless oppression worthy of a school in North Korea — it could homogenize children into non-thinking test taking automatons; it could brainwash children into acceptance of arbitrary authoritarianism and it could systematically crush any independent thought by teachers or students — and, if the school’s test scores met the state’s criteria, the school would be deemed “excellent.”

Our society seems to suffer from a lack of imagination as to what really constitutes “excellence,” in schools for a democratic society. This dearth of imagination about schools is striking because we seem to have plenty of ideas as to what makes an automobile excellent, or a sandwich, or a gym shoe excellent — our imaginations are constantly stimulated by persistent and clever marketers. As a society, incredibly, there seems little discussion as to what makes for excellence in schools, and, incredibly, in this vacuum of thought, there seems a consensus that school excellence can be ascertained via test scores.

Common sense is offended by the notion that an excellent school would be one that operates a mediocre, boring program, with most of its students and teachers simply going through the motions — disengaged from meaningful learning and, by all evidence, intellectually dead. But one problem with relying on test scores to evaluate a school is that mediocre schools, in fact, commonly are proclaimed “excellent.” The fact is, a school can have high scores in spite of its program, rather than because of its program.

There is almost a perfect correlation between the economic status of a community and the test scores of its children. A school in a prosperous community will have high scores — regardless of the school program. Schools, of course, love to take credit for their students’ success. And successful schools are not shy to explain how their program, procedures, faculty and hard work facilitated their students’ success. But how can such a school program be considered “excellent,” if its success is completely a function of its clientele? The fact is, the same program, procedures, faculty and hard work, that “excellent” schools brag about, would simply not work if applied to a clientele suffering from generational family and school failures, one embedded in poverty.

What is needed is a whole new way of evaluating schools. There needs to be a lot of thought centered on this question: What is the definition of school excellence that could inspire schools toward authentic improvement? What are the benchmarks of school excellence that thoughtful taxpayers could use to help gauge the quality of their schools?