Atlanta to help students at schools under scrutiny

Students affected by an investigation of 58 Atlanta schools for possible cheating on state standardized tests will get extra academic attention when they head back to school Aug. 9.

Help will include an intensive tutoring program, frequent monitoring of their academic progress and a deliberate effort by school leaders to talk with parents and each other about what works.

Final touches on the plan are under way as the city awaits the release of investigators' findings. That report is due Aug. 2 -- a week before the new school year starts. The chairman of a panel formed to look into irregularities on state tests at city schools said in June as many as 100 employees at 12 schools may be reported for possible violations of test security procedures.

The state released individual school scores last week that showed in some cases double-digit drops on Atlanta campuses this year compared to scores on tests taken in 2009, when the irregularities took place. The state required additional security measures this year during testing.

In the meantime, nearly 4,000 of the city's elementary and middle school students attended school this summer after struggling during the year. Most took "re-tests" last week to see if, on a second try, they could pass by demonstrating grade-level skills in core subjects such as reading and mathematics. It typically takes about two weeks to get those results back, although system officials acknowledged they do not have time to take a wait-and-see approach.

"We must be aggressive," said Kathy Augustine, the city school system's deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "We will make sure we very quickly get our children back on track."

Augustine said the plan has two parts. The first starts immediately with the school year, for students who attend any of the 58 schools under investigation who did not pass their tests either last spring or this summer. Augustine said in general the students who struggled with state tests attend these schools.

For at least the first 12 weeks of school, these students will be placed on an "accelerated plan" that includes extra lessons before, during and after the regular school day. Their regular classroom teachers will be helped by a group of additional teachers, chosen because of past academic success, who will help with lessons and give feedback.

Students' progress will be monitored weekly, with reports going to the superintendent and other top city school officials.

Parents will be told regularly how their children are doing. This will be done partly through the system's online "parent portal," which provides access to classroom-level reports about their children. Some schools serve lower-income families who may not have access to the Internet. Principals must also try to reach parents through other means, Augustine said.

The system addresses a concern about student mobility -- students who bounce from school to school depending on their family's situation. With the plan's second part, schools will share information about what works to get kids caught up. Those strategies can then be put into use citywide.

School board members, who were given an overview about the plan Monday during their regular monthly meeting, responded favorably, although several asked if students at schools other than the 58 under investigation would also be getting help. "All schools are required to focus on kids who did not meet" state standards, Superintendent Beverly Hall said. Hall said the system wants to take a different approach at the 58 schools because of their situation.

According to a state audit released in February, 191 Georgia public schools in 34 systems required investigation because they showed unusual patterns of erasures on the state's 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. The tests, of students in first through eighth grade, help determine whether schools meet federal benchmarks. Atlanta had the most schools flagged in any system, more than two-thirds of its public elementary and middle schools.