Atlanta schools to assess students’ academic, mental health needs

Atlanta Public Schools will introduce two screening tools in the fall to assess students' academic skills and wellbeing. AJC FILE PHOTO
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Atlanta Public Schools will introduce two screening tools in the fall to assess students' academic skills and wellbeing. AJC FILE PHOTO

When Atlanta students return to classrooms this upcoming school year, they’ll take two assessments. One will gauge their math and reading skills and another will check on their social and emotional wellbeing.

Atlanta Public Schools estimates spending nearly $940,000 to introduce the screening tools, which leaders said will help determine what students need as they return from more than a year of pandemic disruption.

“We realize that we had to be able to build baseline data to effectively progress monitor,” said Superintendent Lisa Herring. “The other part is the need for us to be able to identify mental, social and emotional barriers.”

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She said the effort is particularly important because about 60% of Atlanta students still were learning virtually when the last school year ended in May. Almost all are slated to go back to classrooms in August.

Even before the pandemic, the majority of APS elementary and middle school students did not score at proficient levels in reading and math on state tests. Experts worry the extended period of online learning may have caused some students to fall further behind.

To pinpoint learning gaps, students in kindergarten through 12th grade will take the Measures of Academic Progress Growth assessment. It will be administered in the fall, winter and spring at a cost to APS of $633,661.

Students in prekindergarten through second grade also will take a shorter assessment to gauge reading fluency.

A social, emotional and behavioral assessment for students in prekindergarten through 12th grades will be administered during the first six weeks of the school year.

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Parents and teachers can complete the assessment on behalf of young students. Older students will be asked to respond to questions or statements such as “I worry, but I don’t know why” or “no one understands me.”

It will help schools identify students who might be struggling with issues such as anxiety, depression, hyperactivity or aggression.

The goal is to find out what challenges students are facing after being away from the classroom, said Shannon Hervey, director of student support and interventions.

“I can only imagine that they have had varied experiences and trauma and loss since the pandemic began, and so it’s our intent to be able to support them through it,” she said.

Students in need of help may be referred to the school counselor, social worker or to a community mental health provider. The district is hiring 25 additional social workers, enough to place one in each school. APS is also adding more psychologists and other support positions.

“We wanted to ensure that we took a clear stand on the importance of that as we return to what … will be for all of us a new normal,” Herring said.

APS has not finalized a contract for the mental health screener but estimated the cost to be about $300,000.