Georgia releases grades for schools, districts

The school year hasn’t ended for students, but it was report card day Tuesday for schools and districts.

And judging from the pedestrian scores the Georgia Department of Education handed out through its new College and Career Ready Performance Index, the state wasn’t grading on a curve.

» INTERACTIVE:  See how your school scored

Metro Atlanta districts and schools fared better, on average, than their counterparts across the rest of the state in the new CCRPI grading system, which replaces the assessments offered through the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The grades — which generally range from 0 to 100 — are designed to give parents and education officials an easy-to-understand way to determine how a school or district is faring. CCRPI takes into account more factors than No Child and offers what educators describe as a more accurate assessment of school and district performance.

CCRPI scores varied considerably across the state and across metro Atlanta, with elementary schools getting better grades than middle schools, which got better grades than high schools. Because the system that produced them is vastly different than what was used under No Child, the scores given by the state don’t seamlessly equate to the federal assessments. And unlike No Child, CCRPI scores won’t trigger bonuses, negative performance reviews or teacher and principal firings.

Instead, state Department of Education officials view the grades as a way to use public pressure to spark improvements. A parent who knows a school has a poor grade might not choose to enroll his child there — or the parent will insist on changes that could raise the score, the thinking goes.

The scores are also seen by state officials as another step away from the rose-colored view of education performance that gave parents and educators alike a false sense of success that may have limited the imperative to improve.

“Holding schools accountable and rewarding them for the work they do in all subjects and with all students is critical in preparing our students to be college and career ready,” Schools Superintendent John Barge said in a statement.

The grades released Tuesday were based on the 2011-2012 school year. Grades from this school year will be released this fall.

Under CCRPI, schools and districts can get up to 70 points for academic achievement, which includes factors such as test scores and graduation rates. Academic progress, which assesses student growth in comparison to other students, can bring 15 points. Another 15 points can be earned in the achievement gap area, where districts and schools work to close gaps between groups of students.

Schools and districts can earn up to 10 extra “challenge” points through offering specific academic and extracurricular programs and by improving the performance of students with disabilities and those with limited English skills.

Georgia Department of Education officials, who spent years developing a system that utilizes everything from student attendance and standardized test scores to end-of-course test scores and graduation rates, had warned that the grades would be a sobering assessment that goes far beyond the much-reviled “needs improvement” and “met adequate yearly progress” monikers that were part of No Child Left Behind.

Those warnings proved prescient Tuesday, as schools and districts got report cards that were heavy on Cs, with a few Bs — and even fewer As — sprinkled into the mix.

The state’s high schools got mediocre marks, averaging a grade of 72.6. Middle schools got better grades, averaging a grade of 81.4. Elementary schools performed best of all, getting an average grade of 83.4.

Different elements were used to determine the scores for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. For example, graduation rates are a part of the score for high schools but not for elementary schools.

Jane Sarphie, president of the PTA at Hembree Springs Elementary in Fulton County, said parents were thrilled to hear about the 100.3 the school received.

Sarphie said her children’s school excels because it “meets each student where they are” after assessing the needs of each child.

Marietta High School got a 73, a grade its principal, Leigh Colburn, said is an indication of how representative her school is in terms of its demographics and its mix of high-achievers, English learners and struggling students.

“It doesn’t shock me that we’re going to have a score that sort of drives down the middle,” Colburn said. “We’ll look at it, and we’ll move forward. Our scores will come up.”

With few exceptions, metro Atlanta districts exceeded state averages. Buford City, Cherokee, Cobb, Decatur City, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Marietta City school districts all exceeded the state average at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Atlanta Public Schools fell far below the state average at the high school, middle and elementary school levels.

APS spokesman Stephen Alford said the district’s performance “reveals that we must have a sense of urgency to ensure all our kids receive a quality education.”

Jefferson City Schools, a district located in northeast Georgia, was the only district in the state whose grades placed it in the top three at the high school, middle and elementary school level. Jefferson’s high school got an average score of 90. Its middle school got a 95.9, and its elementary school pulled in a 98.1.

Jefferson City Superintendent John Jackson credited administrators and teachers for focusing intensely on student performance.

Georgia’s new CCRPI grading system has drawn national attention, with education officials from other states quizzing their counterparts from Georgia during conferences and seminars.

Georgia was allowed to craft its own grading system when the U.S. Department of Education granted its waiver from No Child.

Schools and districts can fare well in CCRPI if their students improve over the course of a school year or in comparison to other groups of students. Teachers and principals had long complained that No Child’s performance measures were simplistic and did not adequately account for success in moving students from one level of performance to another.

The complexity of the new grading system has brought praise from educators, who argued that under No Child, just a few factors could lead to a school or district being branded as one that failed to make “adequate yearly progress.”

That complexity, however, could lead to challenges in future years if the state adjusts the formula in ways that make comparing performance from one year to the next invalid. While some educators had praise for CCRPI as a positive step away from No Child, others in education said there is still too much reliance on standardized test scores.

Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing said schools should be assessed by how well their students do in college, or how much money they make in jobs out of school. They should be measured by assessments of student projects and other, deeper work, he said.

Tracey-Ann Nelson, director of government relations for the Georgia Association of Educators, said it remains to be seen how schools that fare poorly will get help.

“What will be the plan to address the identified challenges at all levels?” Nelson asked.

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