Think about this. The ACE and Health Leadership High Schools in Albuquerque enroll learners who were either dropouts or on their way to dropping out (“Getting back on track,” Aug. 20). Ninety-seven percent of their graduates get a job or go to college. But only 5 percent of their students test at grade level in reading and math.

Instead of criticizing the schools, let’s try to understand why the program is working. The Leadership Schools Network’s approaches may not be as “academic” as some would like. But if they lead to student success in employment and further education for kids otherwise headed for lives of poverty, social and civic failure, and possibly crime, that’s a big win for the kids, the schools, and New Mexico. If this success is not reflected or predicted by statewide exams, maybe the exams are the problem.

Fast forward to reporter Robert Nott’s story (“Education or politics?,” Aug. 21) about the Santa Fe Public Schools and concerns with the state Public Education Department’s A-F report card for schools. Again, the statewide tests to decide on the quality of education, this time in the Santa Fe school district, distracts us from the important point.

If, as stated in The New Mexican’s editorial (“Failing schools? Consider the source,” Our View, Aug. 21), Los Alamos scientists could not determine “how the state got to its results” in issuing its grades, and we know that “teaching to the test” takes time and energy away from real learning, maybe we are searching for the definition of “academic quality” in the wrong place.

Academics are more than knowing about the War of 1812, Emily Dickinson and algebra. Academics are also problem-solving, critical thinking, and analytical thinking in real time. Experiential, project-based, and hands-on approaches, coupled with high support have proven to be great learning techniques, be they for graduating, contributing to the social and civic life of the community, getting a job and/or going to college.

The old saying goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” And in K-12 education (and beyond), we know there is more than one way to get to college or to the job you need. Let’s measure the success of schools in doing those things and move away from the false security of standardized testing.

Dr. Peter Smith has served as founding president of the Community College of Vermont and Cal State University Monterey Bay; and as a state senator, lieutenant governor and congressman in Vermont. He lives in Santa Fe.