It's back to school for more than 13,000 Tuolumne and Calaveras county elementary and high school students.

Some have been at it for awhile. Close to 3,500 Calaveras Unified District students began classes in late July and Summerville High opened its doors last week.

Sonora and Bret Harte high schools, and the elementary districts that feed them, began today.

For many, the school year brings new beginnings. Trembling kindergartners, accompanied by equally anxious moms, will enter classrooms for the first time. Parents years further down the child-rearing line will bid emotional farewells to sons and daughters enrolling in colleges perhaps hundreds of miles home.

Summer vacation is over and optimism is in the air. With clean records and lofty hopes, school sports teams are already practicing with vigor.

In classrooms, honor students will continue the pursuit of excellence. Those with more modest records, now with new teachers and new classes, can resolve to turn a corner.

For the schools themselves, it is also a time of opportunity. Educating our youth is an important, challenging job and one that should not be taken lightly.

But how well are the Mother Lode's schools doing?

It is a question often asked this time of year, when the results of state Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR tests, are released.

Once again, our schools scored better than the statewide average in most subjects and grades. But this does not mean they scored well.

Although varying from school-to-school, proficiency levels in English-language arts and in math typically start high in the primary grades and decline as students get older. For instance, 65 percent of Tuolumne County second-graders and 62 percent of Calaveras fourth-graders, achieved proficiency in mathematics standards in last year's STAR tests.

Although those numbers may not sound good, they are positively stratospheric when contrasted with numbers posted by high school students in the two counties.

English-language arts proficiency hovers in the 40 percent range, but math drops off the table. Only 4 percent of Tuolumne and Calaveras 11th-graders tested in geometry proved proficient 2 percent below the abysmal state average of 6 percent.

The high school juniors didn't do too much better in algebra II, posting 7 and 12 percent proficiency marks to the state's lackluster 11.

Motivation could be a problem. STAR tests are not required for graduation and colleges don't ask for the results. Without homework during test week, many kids view the state exams as something of a vacation.

"I'm really at a loss as to what to do," admitted Tioga High School Principal Sandy Bradley. "How do you motivate them?"

Some have proposed linking STAR with grades or to the High School Exit Exam, tying scores to acceptance in advanced-placement classes or even offering prizes to kids who do well. In fact, earlier this summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would allow schools to offer pizza coupons, concert tickets or admission to sporting events for good STAR scores.

Schwarzenegger said schools are already free to offer such incentives.

In Calaveras County, a Vallecito School District parent has launched a local crusade for better scores in the area's schools.

Certainly, the STAR test have their flaws and scores should clearly not be the sole barometer with which schools should be judged. Still, our schools will gain little by dismissing the state tests as irrelevant.

Instead, as many districts have, they should view STAR scores with a critical eye. Teachers and administrators should dedicate themselves to build on their good scores and to improving instruction in areas where scores are below par.