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Georgia Appeals No Child Left Behind

Georgia today will become one of the first states to seek relief from a controversial federal law that measures the success of public schools almost exclusively through students’ CRCT scores.

Critics say the federal No Child Left Behind Act put administrators and teachers under pressure to deliver good test scores, possibly contributing to widespread and decade-long cheating in Atlanta schools on the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT).

In August, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said states would be allowed starting this month to apply for a waiver from many of No Child Left Behind’s requirements, provided other reform efforts are pursued.

Officials in two dozen states — including Georgia — immediately expressed interest, and a handful of those states already have requests in the pipeline. State School Superintendent John Barge and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson plan to hand-deliver Georgia’s waiver request later today to Duncan in Washington.

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Barge said Georgia wants to be able to determine whether a school passes muster, or meets the NCLB benchmark of adequate yearly progress, using a “college- and career-ready performance index.”

The index would take into account not just CRCT scores, but other factors including:

  • ACT and SAT college entrance exam scores;
  • Student performance on Advanced Placement tests;
  • Student success in career tech classes, such as automotive repair;
  • Reading levels in elementary and middle schools;
  • And students’ performance in dual enrollment classes, where they earn both high school and college credit.

The index measures — more details of which will be released today — would apply for elementary, middle and high schools.

Barge said the problem with No Child Left Behind is that schools end up being judged on a single test given on a single day.

“Our new plan is looking at a whole host of indicators that look at the full scope of work schools do to prepare students to be ready for college and career,” he said. “We’re not afraid of accountability. But we want people to understand a school is so much more than a test score.”

The state also has asked that it be exempt from the No Child Left Behind law’s centerpiece goal: that schools be 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014 or face serious sanctions, including the loss of federal aid. States were given leeway to set up their own standards.

Duncan and many in Congress have called the proficiency goal unrealistic. But changes to the law, which is four years past due for reauthorization, have been stymied in Congress.

Educators say the law, in general, creates an unhealthy focus on standardized tests such as the CRCT, and has spawned a warped atmosphere and allegations of test cheating in Baltimore, the District of Columbia and Atlanta. At least 178 educators have been implicated in Atlanta. An investigation also is ongoing in Dougherty County in South Georgia.

Barge said Monday he believes de-emphasizing the test could lead to less stress and less cheating.

Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled a failure next year, in the absence of changes to the law. That’s why he authorized states to seek waivers.

Most states are slipping in their performance because the bar for meeting standards increases every year.

In Georgia, nearly 37 percent of schools didn’t make AYP in 2011, compared to 29 percent in 2010. The percentage of schools classified as “needs improvement” — not making AYP for two years in a row — also rose from 15.4 percent in 2010 to 17.5 percent in 2011.

Schools that repeatedly fail to meet benchmarks face sanctions, such as having to offer tutoring and allowing students to transfer to higher-performing schools in the same district. Some schools must fire teachers, replace their principal or even shut down.

L.C. ‘Buster’ Evans, superintendent of Forsyth County Schools, called the state’s waiver request “a move in the right direction.”

“We look forward to details,” he said Monday. “We knew there had to be a change in what we were doing.”

Evans said he was concerned about having a standardized test — in Georgia, the CRCT — as the only measure of accountability.

He said the college- and career-ready index seems a better solution.

“Realistically, I think this reflects a real-world, work-based relevance,” Evans said.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said the state’s largest teachers’ group supports the changes Barge is proposing.

“We do think it is a good thing to broaden the definition of AYP to get away from focusing solely on test scores,” Callahan said.

Most important, he said, the focus at the elementary, middle and high school levels will be “readiness for the next level of education.”

Although No Child Left Behind has been widely criticized, most educators agree the law brought attention to the nation’s achievement gap and forced schools to look closer at the performance of minority, immigrant and special needs students.

“It has really not allowed us to hide behind high, overall test scores,” Evans said.

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