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NCLB Outrages

More Georgia schools fall short

Surely, this doesn't surprise anyone. One hundred percent proficiency is impossible, and the closer we get to 2014 and that 100% requirement, the more schools will be labeled 'failures' by the federal formula. Eventually, we will have 98% failure, with some very elite schools escaping the label. Teachers there will be labelled swell, when in reality it's the zip codes that spell proficiency.

By Laura Diamond

The number of Georgia public schools meeting federal testing goals plummeted this year, with nearly one in three failing to make the grade, according to data released Friday.

About 31 percent of Georgia schools did not meet testing goals, compared with 18 percent last year, the state Department of Education said in its annual report on whether schools met the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Fewer than half the state's 389 high schools met the standard.

State school Superintendent Kathy Cox had predicted lower results this year because the state created harder elementary and middle school math tests to match the state's more rigorous curriculum. Also, more students in all grades were required to pass state math and English tests.

"It was harder this year, much more difficult than ever before," Cox said in a telephone interview Friday. "The concern for me is when I look at the high school numbers. We have to find a way to help these struggling students."

The law expects schools to continually improve learning. Those that fail repeatedly face sanctions, ranging from requiring free tutoring to hiring new staff to a possible takeover by the state.

Forty-eight percent of high schools met testing goals, compared with 56 percent last year. About 77 percent of elementary schools met testing goals, compared with about 96 percent last year. Middle schools remained the same, with about 65 percent meeting the standard.

Fewer elementary and middle schools would have met testing goals if Georgia hadn't received permission from the U.S. Department of Education to change the passing rates, said Dana Tofig, spokesman for the state Education Department.

The federal law requires states to gradually increase their passing rates so that 100 percent of a school's students must pass by 2014. The law allows states to alter those passing rates if they make changes to their exams. Georgia created harder math tests that students took for the first time during this past school year to match the state's more rigorous curriculum.

Elementary and middle schools needed 59.5 percent of students to pass state math tests. That's up from the previous target but less than the 66.7 percent originally planned.

Results varied widely across the metro area:

> In Gwinnett, 94 percent of schools met testing goals, an increase from last year.

> Cobb County schools declined to 81 percent.

> Fulton fell to 84 percent.

> DeKalb dropped to 54 percent ΓΆ€”- a 25-point decline from last year.

"There is no magic wand that I have," said DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis, who presented the results Friday at a meeting with disappointed school board members.

Districts will notify parents two weeks before school starts if their school didn't meet testing goals and what penalties it faces.

While some parents were surprised by how many schools failed, they weren't worried about the quality of education. Clayton parent Jo Ann Mitchell-Stringer has three children at schools that did not meet testing goals, but she's not planning to send them to higher-achieving schools, even though that's allowed under the law.

"There's a lot of stuff that goes on to figure out those ratings, but they can't tell me how my child is doing in school," she said. "I care more about the teachers my kids get and the rigor of the curriculum the teachers teach. Just because a school gets a bad label from NCLB doesn't make it a bad school."

To determine whether schools met testing goals, Georgia looked at math and reading test scores, graduation rates, school attendance and other criteria. The state analyzed a school's overall score and results from groups of students, such as minorities, kids from poor families, students with disabilities and children who are not fluent in English. The entire school failed if just one group missed the mark.

Schools that reached testing goals have made "adequate yearly progress," also called AYP.

Those that missed the mark for at least two consecutive years are labeled as "needs improvement" and face sanctions. The penalties become more severe the longer a school needs improvement. The number of schools facing penalties in Georgia increased to 340 from 323 last year.

Elementary schools saw the steepest decline this year, but Cox said those schools have a track record of improving the next year.

She worried about high schools, especially their low math scores. The number of high schools missing the mark solely because of math scores was 63, up from 39 last year, according to state data.

Students "were not prepared when they left middle school, and they're not getting the preparation they need in high school," Cox said. "That is very concerning. We have to help these students who are sitting there with very weak math skills."

Norcross High used a combination of methods to improve math and English scores. The Gwinnett school successfully met testing goals this year, making it one of the 37 elementary, middle and high schools that no longer need improvement.

Principal Jonathan Patterson said teachers reviewed data to see where students struggled and created lessons to address weaknesses. Teachers also received training on ways to deliver the lessons. Students who were at greatest risk of failing attended after-school tutoring for about five hours a week. Tutoring sessions were led by the strongest teachers, Patterson said.

"It's hard for a school when you don't make it, I know," Patterson said. "We're excited by our success, but you really can enjoy it for only a couple of days. Then you have to start getting ready for next year and looking at where you can do better."

Staff writers Diane R. Stepp and Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

— Laura Diamond
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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