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Middle Schools Test 'No Child Left' Goals

Ohanian Comment: As a longtime middle school teacher I take issue at just about every assertion about middle school contained in this article.

Like the rest of the nation, Georgia is struggling with how to teach its middle school students.

The challenge was illuminated this week when the state issued its annual report on whether schools met testing goals. More than three out of every four public schools in Georgia 78 percent met the testing bar. But less than half 49 percent of middle schools hit the target.

Jonathan Grant of DeKalb County, who has two children in middle school, said he is shocked at the numbers.

"As a parent it confirms your fears that there is obviously something wrong there," he said. "You're typically happy with your kids' elementary school, and then they hit middle school, and you have to start worrying."

The number of middle schools reaching state targets more than doubled from the previous year, but lagged far behind elementary and high schools.

How to best educate children just entering adolescence is a conversation going on across Georgia and throughout the nation.

Gene Bottoms, senior vice president for the Southern Regional Education Board, which works with 16 states, said the physical and psychological changes middle school children experience play a role. But that's not the sole cause of the problem.

Many middle schools have a weak curriculum and use poor teaching strategies, Bottoms said.

"I'm not sure that middle grades' leaders and teachers and even school board members have been clear about the mission of middle schools," he said. "The essential mission is to get youngsters ready to do challenging high school work. Instead, their highest priority is getting students through eighth grade."

Bottoms said students in grades 6, 7, and 8 should be taking more advanced math classes and writing short papers each week that require them to analyze material they have read.

What it all means

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools must show measurable gains in reading, writing and math, and in various subgroups determined by race, disability, economic status and fluency in English. Schools that don't improve sufficiently are labeled as "needs improvement" and face severe sanctions.

On Monday, Georgia education officials issued their annual report showing how schools fared.

In Fulton County, for example, four middle schools missed testing goals because of declines in the state writing exam.

Atlanta's Benjamin S. Carson Honors Preparatory School missed testing goals because of low student scores in math and English. Under federal law, the school must now implement an improvement plan that calls for students to spend two hours in each class and provides teachers with more opportunities to improve their skills, said Principal Nash Alexander III.

"We can talk about the issue of wanting to improve parental involvement and all the social issues going on with our students, but those excuses are crutches that are no longer valid," Alexander said. "It comes down to us what our teachers are doing in the classroom. And as the instructional leader, it means it all comes down to me."

The next move

Alexander said he plans to spend more time observing teachers. When he notices problems, the principal said, he will provide teachers with additional training.

Some parents suggested the blame belongs on the students.

Misti Eudy, treasurer of the Parent-Teacher Association at Arnall Middle School in Coweta County, said teachers arrive early and stay late to help students and are always available to answer parents' questions. Because the school's students who struggle with English didn't meet the testing mark, all Arnall parents will be allowed to transfer their children to higher-performing schools. Eudy said her daughter will stay at Arnall.

"This is a wonderful school system, but I think sometimes we struggle because children, all types of children, are not willing to do the work," she said. "I don't think kids realize that it rests on their shoulders."

Bottoms said middle school students are expected to be self-motivated. But many students lack the study or time-management skills needed to succeed, he said.. As a result, teachers will have to provide lessons on how to study, including basics such as note-taking skills, he said.

"We know what needs to be done," Bottoms said. "The problem comes in making sure what needs to be done actually happens."

Staff writer Mary MacDonald contributed to this report.

— Laura Diamond
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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