Georgia schools already struggling to shed negative labels of "needs improvement" and not making "adequate yearly progress" are in an even deeper hole this year as basic proficiency standards get tougher.
The percentage of students required to pass basic-skills tests for a school to make adequate progress, or AYP as it is commonly known, jumps this year for the first time since 2005 in elementary and middle schools and 2006 in high schools.
Here's a brief glance at the changes, which come as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act's requirement that every student meets basic standards by 2014:
- 73.3 percent of students must pass the reading/English/language arts portions of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, or CRCT, compared to 66.7 percent the past three years.
- 66.7 percent must pass the math portion of the CRCT, compared to 58.3 percent the past three years. The state is proposing to adjust this to 60 percent.
- 87.7 percent must pass the English/language arts portions of the Georgia High School Graduation Tests, compared to 84.7 percent the past two years.
- 74.9 percent must pass the math portion of the graduation tests, compared to 68.6 percent the past two years.
The scores of students in third through eighth grades count toward AYP evaluation in elementary and middle schools. Students typically begin taking graduation tests as a high school junior.
Further complicating matters for schools is math basic-skills exams are based on the state's new curriculum, the Georgia Performance Standards, "that don't match what students have been taught since kindergarten," said Will Schofield, superintendent of the Hall County school system.
In addition, the required graduation rate for high schools to make AYP outright is rising to 70 percent from 65 percent.
"It will be an interesting year for Georgia's schools and children," Schofield said in an April 29 e-mail to Hall County Board of Education members and others.
He said in a later interview that "I would be less than genuine if I offered any prediction as to how well our students will do on these new assessments with the increasing (percentages)."
David Shumake, associate superintendent for the Gainesville school system, said, "We have certainly addressed the issues of (the rising percentages) with a little bit more intensity this year because of the big leap."
Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, said state officials "are hopeful that our schools will meet and exceed the higher bars, but we are being realistic."
"Any time you raise standards, there is the chance that you will see a temporary drop in the numbers," he added.
Georgia has put new assessments in place to follow the rolling out of the new curriculum. "Our new curriculum is so different, especially in certain areas, that we couldn't continue to give students the same test," Tofig said.
And Georgia, he added, "could not wait any longer to implement more focused and rigorous standards."
The state issues its AYP report each summer.
One of the Gainesville system's seven schools, Gainesville Middle, didn't make AYP in 2007. Six of Hall County's 32 schools (Lanier Career Academy wasn't evaluated because it didn't have enough students) didn't make AYP - East Hall High, East Hall Middle, Martin Elementary, North Hall Middle, South Hall Middle and White Sulphur Elementary.
Many schools don't make AYP outright based on the percentage of students passing their respective basic-skills test. The state provides other factors, such as "multiyear averaging," that can lift a school to AYP. And some schools also have "subgroups," or student classifications based on race, ethnicity, poverty and other factors, that don't meet the required percentages. But they didn't count toward AYP because the subgroup was too small in size.
In a survey of last year's results, 12 of the 39 schools in Gainesville and Hall combined made AYP outright last year in the key area of academic performance and would do so this year, based on last year's numbers, under the higher standards.
Numbers fluctuate yearly for many schools and that's one of the main criticisms of No Child Left Behind. The state judges the performance of a school based on the scores of different groups of students every year. Critics say the law, to be meaningful, should track the progress of individual students over time, a concept known as the "growth model."
Nine states -- not including Georgia -- are operating the growth model under a test program started by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005.
Based on last year's required percentages, English-language learners at Centennial Arts Academy in Gainesville would not make AYP outright in math under this year's higher standards.
"We have taken many extra steps to make sure those students in particular will pass the test," principal Susan Gilliam said.
Each city school has developed a "45-day action plan" to give students extra support, including an after-school program and the "Early Bird Computer Lab" for "targeted students ... to work on specific math and reading skills," she said.
The situation is more dire at White Sulphur Elementary, which is in "needs improvement." Schools acquire that label if they don't meet state standards in the same testing area for two consecutive years. And they can shed the label only if they make AYP two consecutive years.
Those schools face consequences, which get stiffer the longer they remain classified as needs improvement. Escalating sanctions include tutoring and choice for parents to move their child to a school making progress.
Don Watson, White Sulphur's principal, said the school has taken many steps to work toward making AYP, including early-morning tutoring for English-language learners and special education students and using reading software "to help at-risk students identify weaknesses and strengthen these areas."
Twelve special education students "who needed additional encouragement were identified as ‘Our Angels' and received special attention from the entire staff," Watson added.
Special education students and English-language learners are subgroups that often tend to score lower than other subgroups. And just one subgroup scoring below standards can keep an entire school from making AYP.
Schofield said that for the first time in his career, he has received e-mails this year from elementary students complaining about how much time schools are spending on basic-skills testing preparation.
"One little girl was incensed that her ‘Poetry Café' was suspended for weeks as we prepped for the CRCT," he said. "I have to agree with her."