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CRCT scores show room for improvement in social studies at Hall, Gainesville schools
Classtime focuses more heavily on language and math skills
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Read the questions. Bubble in answers completely.

Five minutes left. Two minutes.

Pencils down. Test over.

And for those who do poorly on the science and social studies portions of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, there's no second chance.

"It's one shot. One and done," said Jamey Moore, Gainesville City Schools director of curriculum and instruction. Reading, math and English-language arts portions, however, allow a retest in some grade levels.

All Georgia third- through eighth-graders must take the CRCT, which affects their ability to move into the next grade. And while preliminary numbers of students meeting and exceeding statewide averages are in the 90s and above — such as the 100 percent of World Language Academy fourth-graders excelling in reading — social studies scores are much lower.

Statewide, only about 70 percent of students met or exceeded the state standard for social studies in all grade levels. In Hall County and Gainesville schools, that number ranges anywhere from 18.8 percent to 93.7.

School officials have difficulty giving a logical explanation for the wide range of scores, but a root cause seems to be the emphasis on reading, math and ELA.

"Because accountability measures are currently tied to math and reading, teachers teach ... those two subjects with much more fidelity and feel more freedom to teach science and social studies in a more interest-based fashion," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield wrote in an email to The Times.

Shaun Owen, social studies program coordinator for the Georgia Department of Education, said her predecessor once told her a statewide survey found most elementary school teachers taught social studies for about 15 minutes a day.

Though the state mandates the amount of time students must be in the classroom, it does not mandate how much time should be spent teaching individual subjects.

"If it's not getting the same amount of time ... how are these kids going to have a fighting chance on the test?" Owen said. "Honestly, it's heartbreaking to see, not just for the test, but also to see these kids not achieving."

Bridging the gap
Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said some factors affecting Gainesville schools' scores include the poverty level and the high subgroup population. Subgroups include economically disadvantaged, different ethnic groups and gender, among others. Students in multiple subgroups have their CRCT scores counted more than once, which affects how their schools and systems look in comparison to others.

Moore said the social studies scores are low across the board, not just for any particular demographic or subgroup of students.

"Our excelled number has doubled in the past four years and the number meeting stays about the same. That's during the time we changed to (Georgia Performance Standards)," Moore said. "Ultimately it goes down to teachers who are focused on the GPS in their classroom and engaging their students with history."

Whether it's with blended learning, more local testing or community involvement, Owen said something has to change with the way social studies is approached in Georgia.

"We need to develop a passion and a love for this subject area because it can teach us a lot about where we are, where we've been and where we're going," Owen said. "We need to teach social studies on par with every other subject level because it is and it should be."

The knowledge to succeed
The Georgia CRCT is based on the GPS curriculum, which was put in place between 2007 and 2009. The social studies GPS have been revised since.

"It's different from a norm-referenced test, which most people might be familiar with," said Sarah Bell, director of academic programs and standards for Gainesville City Schools. "Those measure students' performance against other students. With the CRCT, a child is not compared to other students."

Instead, the CRCT is designed to test students' mastery of the GPS.

"That's a big thing we try to tell teachers," Owen said. "We're not testing the textbooks. We have 180 systems and they may all have different textbooks. We want to make sure kids are engaged with the GPS."

Individually, local school systems have improved their social studies scores in the past several years, but they are not quite at the state level.

"That tells me that compared to what we had last year, we focused a little bit more on instruction," said Eloise Barron, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Hall County Schools. "Our scores in social studies are hovering close to the state mean but below it."

There are four different domains for social studies: geography, history, economics and civics.

Each domain is assessed and scored differently for each grade level taking the CRCT. For example, geography might be weighted more heavily in third grade than in fifth.

Bell said success on CRCT questions is dependent on knowledge of discrete facts, such as the exact year Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue or who it was that sewed the first American flag, and not on concepts as other subjects are.

"The social studies standards are very broad," Bell said. "Many times, especially in social studies, students are tested on a number of facts. While we certainly think it's important for students to know the facts, it's also important they be able to think deeper."

Moore said Gainesville students do a blitz program, where teachers hone in on key concepts and information for upcoming standardized tests.

"With other subjects you can sort of pare down to the essential information. Like with reading and language arts, like 60 percent of the middle school standards are the same. They roll over year to year," Moore said. "But social studies content is brand-new every year. The same is true of science."

Though middle school CRCT social studies scores are still below the state in some area schools, they are much closer than elementary scores. Moore said if a third-grader's social studies scores are compared to the state average versus comparing that same student's End of Course Test scores in high school, the "achievement gap" narrows considerably.

"Somewhere along the line the gap just closes," Moore said. "As they learn so much of that content, it just takes them that long to store that information."

Dyer said one concern with social studies is the difficulty some students have with correlating what they learn to a test.

"They could tell you all about the Revolutionary War in their own words, but then you throw a test question at them and it doesn't connect," she said. "We've got to do something about that."

A bigger issue
"This isn't a Georgia problem. I really think this is a nation problem," Owen said. "We need to refocus and we need to make sure (social studies is) being taught."

Dyer said the system was looking to see the strategies in place at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy and Centennial Arts Academy, which had the highest social studies scores in grades third through fifth.

"While our teachers do have a block of time on their daily schedule for social studies, that is not the only time during the day the students are exposed to the content," Elizabeth Wiley, academic coach at Centennial, wrote in an email to The Times. "Throughout any unit of study they read about it, write about it, incorporate it into math and even science lessons."

Dyer said Gainesville schools are addressing social studies scores in their strategic plans for the upcoming year, which include adding science and social studies in the quarterly benchmark testing for schools.

In Hall County, the main focus for increasing test scores comes down to a scheduling problem.

"You have the students who don't score well in reading. It's been a pretty high-stakes game in that area and they're pulling these kids for intervention," said David Moody, Hall County Schools director of elementary education and principal at World Language Academy. "For science and social studies, they haven't gotten what they need."

Moody said intervention could happen before, after and during school.

Pulling students out of science and social studies for remediation is something Gainesville schools try to avoid.

Moore said parents as well as teachers can play a role in bridging the gap, by exposing students to quality websites, books and movies that will increase their academic vocabulary.

So if teachers are teaching GPS and parents are doing their part, what's keeping the scores so low?

"You have to look underneath the scores and see who didn't score well," Dyer said. "It's like peeling an onion. You look at each layer and say, ‘Why, why, why?'"

 

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