"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Georgia Plans Student Failure While Pushing for Charter School Expansion

While the State Department of Education in Georgia was planning to use the state test to demonstrate the failure of the majority of Georgia students (yes, they knew it ahead of time), it was also giving a nod to legislation to dramatically expand the presence of charter schools in Georgia--legislation recently signed by Gov. Perdue (R). Now it seems entire systems are contemplating shifts to the corporate-style charters. No collective bargaining required, no state retirement, no libraries needed, slashed services and salaries. Will Georgia citizens wake up before their public schools are gone?

Now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the State seems to have no plans or uses for the tests or test scores beyond their use to demonstrate that most children are failing in their public schools. Can a class action lawsuit be far behind? Where is the public outrage!
By ALAN JUDD, HEATHER VOGELL
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/25/08
About 36,000 Georgia eighth-graders tried but never passed the math test required for high school admission in 2006 and 2007. After that, state officials have no idea what happened.

The state doesn't know how many of those students were promoted despite failing the mandatory test. It doesn't know how many repeated the eighth grade. It doesn't even know how many of them dropped out of school.

Despite the high-stakes nature of Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, which cover subjects that students in certain grades must pass before moving up, the state doesn't track the ultimate outcome of those who fail.

Instead, the state lets each of Georgia's more than 180 local school systems decide whether to promote students who fail the required tests, after an appeals process that may vary from district to district. But some school systems — such as Gwinnett County, the state's largest — say they don't keep up with the failing students, either.

As a result, while state officials suggest that most of the 36,000 students were promoted, they acknowledge that's just an assumption.

The lack of information and an inconsistent appeals process undermine the state's ability to measure whether the no-pass, no-promotion law is effective, testing experts say.

"In order to make effective decisions about students, you have to have good data," said Ron Dietel, an assistant director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. Georgia's approach, he said, "sounds like a situation that would produce very messy outcomes and not good decisions."

The fate of students who failed since 2006, the first year the math test helped determine promotion to high school, took on new relevance as details emerged last week about a colossal failure rate on this year's exam.

Forty percent of the state's eighth-graders — roughly 50,000 students — failed the math test this spring, twice as many as in each of the past two years. The state's schools superintendent, Kathy Cox, said the math results, which are preliminary, would stand.

But Cox invalidated social studies scores for sixth- and seventh-grade students, 70 to 80 percent of whom failed. Unlike eighth-grade math, the social studies exam does not count toward promotion.

Cox blamed a vague curriculum for the social studies results, but she defended the math test as appropriately rigorous.

The high failure rates have enraged parents and teachers and created uncertainty for tens of thousands of students who must decide whether to go to summer school before taking the test again.

Many parents say their children were expected to answer test questions about concepts not covered during social studies classes. Others complain that, by falling just a few points short of an arbitrary passing score on the math test, many high-performing students could end up having to repeat a grade.

During the past two school years, about 28,000 students failed both the eighth-grade math test and a retest, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Another 7,900 failed the math test once but chose not to take it again, rendering them ineligible for moving to the ninth grade.

If that pattern holds, as many as 29,720 students could be in jeopardy of being held back in the eighth grade next fall, according to the Journal-Constitution's analysis of state school statistics.

State officials assume the vast majority of students who failed the eighth-grade math test in 2006 and 2007 moved up to ninth grade anyway. They expect the same result this year.

"A lot of these students get promoted even if they haven't passed the retest," said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. "But we get them extra help where they're struggling."

In a separate interview, Tofig dismissed concerns that large numbers of students will be retained in the eighth grade.

"Not going to happen," he said.

In 2007, he said, school systems statewide retained about 68,000 students in all grades — about 4 percent — for all reasons.

"I would feel confident saying less than 10 percent" will be held back in the eighth grade because of the math test, he said.

Tofig acknowledged, however, that state officials reach those projections "anecdotally."

"We don't collect that data," he said. "The school districts collect that data. It's a school district decision."

In Cherokee County, for instance, about 5 percent of the 291 eighth-graders who failed the math test in 2007 repeated the grade this year, Superintendent Frank Petruzielo said.

But similar data is not available for the Cobb County schools, a spokesman said.

In Gwinnett, spokesman Sloan Roach said in an e-mail, "the placement process ... occurs at local schools and is not collected centrally."

State law requires students in the third, fifth and eighth grades to pass certain standardized tests to advance to the next grade. The promotion rules, which former Gov. Roy Barnes signed into law in 2001, aim to stop so-called social promotion and have been phased in.

Since the law took effect, the state education agency has studied how only one group of students fared on tests they had to pass to advance: third-graders who took the reading exam in 2004.

Nearly 2,800 students failed that test twice, according to a state report. But 61 percent of those students advanced to the fourth grade, anyway.

Among the 1,100 or so who repeated the third grade, 31 percent failed again the next year. The report does not say whether they were held back again.

Without statewide data, officials cannot look for differences in failure and promotion rates among districts, said Dietel, the testing researcher. Districts with similar types of students should have comparable rates, he said. If they don't, it could signal a problem.

"My guess would be most districts are probably going ahead and letting students go on to the next grade," Dietel said. "But if you don't know that, how do you know if the test is doing what it is supposed to do? How do you know if the remediation is doing what it's supposed to do?"

The state requires school systems to offer summer school or other remedial instruction to students who failed tests required for promotion. But the students don't have to attend. Cox, the state superintendent, said last week that summer school teachers will focus on aspects of the test that stumped most students.

"The children will receive the help they need," Cox said.

In June or July, schools give the test a second time to those who failed in the spring.

Students who fail a second time may appeal to the school principal and a teacher. Only parents, not school officials or the students themselves, may request a hearing.

The consequences of failing the math exam have flustered many parents, especially those whose children are strong in math.

Leah Smith's eighth-grade daughter Alex is an A/B student who failed the math test by five points — essentially one question, the mother said.

Her daughter's math class in Cobb County's Awtrey Middle School had three teachers over the course of the year, she said. When Smith talked to school officials last week, she said they told her that even if her daughter failed the retest, she would likely be successful in an appeal.

But Smith hopes Alex won't need the back-up: The two have already bought study guides.

"We'll be going over those the next four weeks," she said. "It's hard for me not to be upset with the school. But she's got to do her best and learn there are these things in your life you have to go through."

Staff writer Laura Diamond contributed to this article.

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