Critics say Georgia schools misled parents about student success

Georgia’s public school students have been ill-prepared to meet the rigors of college or the demands of the workplace, according to a new study that ranks states based on test outcomes.

The report by the national education advocacy group Achieve ranked states by a so-called "honesty gap" — the difference between the reported "proficiency" rates on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal exam administered in odd years to a representative sample of students across the country.

In many subjects and grades, Georgia had the biggest gap in the nation. For instance, on last year’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test for reading, 94 percent of fourth-graders met the standards. Yet only 34 percent were proficient on the 2013 NAEP, for a gap of 60 points, the largest in that grade and subject in the country. Georgia also had the biggest gap — 53 points — in eighth-grade math.

“In too many states, we’re not leveling with students or parents,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, who noted that many states report proficiency levels at odds with NAEP outcomes. The public is “being told that students are proficient when by external benchmarks they’re clearly not well prepared at all,” he said.

Cohen reasons that accurate information is a prerequisite to improving performance.

Achieve undertook the analysis because of the historic difficulty in comparing the test results among states that use their own homegrown exams. Yet critics note flaws in the approach. For one, Georgia no longer uses the CRCT. The test was phased out this year, replaced with the Georgia Milestones exams taken this spring, which the Georgia Department of Education has said is more rigorous.

“The NAEP has shown us that we had the lowest expectations in the country,” said Melissa Fincher, Georgia’s deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability. The Milestones tests are meant to raise expectations and close the gap with the federal exam and other national tests, such as the PSAT, she said. As a result, she warned, fewer students are expected to get “proficient” scores when the results are released around October.

Dana Rickman, a Georgia education policy expert, agreed that the new tests are supposed to be harder, and she criticized Achieve for using the old CRCT to rank Georgia.

"It is this exact data that motivated the DOE to dump the CRCT and create the Georgia Milestones," said Rickman, the director of policy and research for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. "So I think it's a little unfair for them to come up and say this shows Georgia is a liar."

Others are critical of using NAEP as the comparison test, saying it sets the proficiency bar in an arbitrary way.

“All claims about what constitutes “proficiency” are little more than value judgments, which are often based on political or ideological agendas,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an advocacy group that argues testing is overused in America’s schools.

That sentiment resonates with parents such as Abby Shiffman, the president of the school council at Wheeler High School in Cobb County.

She has two children, one in college the other in high school. One did well on tests but the other “froze” despite otherwise strong performances in the classroom. She wants educators to assess the “whole” child.

“There’s got to be other ways of measuring it besides just one test,” she said.