Georgia elementary, middle-schoolers improve test scores

Georgia's elementary and middle school students fared better this year on the CRCT, the test that checks their knowledge against a new and tougher curriculum, and can also keep them from advancing to the next grade.

Students improved on all 14 of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT). But the greatest gains were made in math and science. For instance, the pass rate among eighth graders taking the math test rose to 70 percent, up from 62 percent last year.

The improvements are a testimony to teachers and students who "are embracing the rigor and are making tremendous progress," state School Superintendent Kathy Cox said.

"This could have been a year where there were a lot of excuses, a lot of distractions," she said. "I really want to credit our leadership at the local level for helping teachers focus on student achievement."

Last year, parents and teachers were stunned by the failure rates on some of the tests, which are supposed to align with the curriculum for students in grades 1-8 in the subjects of reading, English language arts, mathematics. Third- through eighth-graders are also tested in science and social studies.

Cox ultimately threw out 2008 scores from the sixth- and seventh-grade social studies exams, which about 71 percent of the sixth-graders and about 76 percent of the seventh-graders failed. The social studies curriculum and tests were revamped, which means the scores won't count for sixth- and seventh-graders this year either because they are in pilot phase.

The statewide results released Friday showed higher passing rates on almost all of the tests. Another notable change was the jump in students who ranked as exceeding standards, the highest score possible.

"That's awesome," said Dr. Carla Cohen, Cherokee County's assistant superintendent for educational programs. "Not only are we helping students who need our help to get over that hump, but we're also helping the ones that are on that bubble to succeed."

Third-graders this year improved their math passage rate from 71 percent to 78 percent, and fifth-graders improved from 72 percent to 79 percent. For science, 80 percent of third-graders passed the test, compared to 75 percent last year. The fourth-grade passing rate rose from 74 percent to 78 percent.

Social studies remained a challenge, with 37 percent of eighth graders failing that test. Last year, 41 percent of eighth graders failed.

Still, Dana Tofig, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that the failure rate does not necessarily indicate a problem with the test.

"Social studies is an area where students have not performed well in the past," Tofig said.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, had mixed reactions.

"On the one hand, I'm glad that scores are up generally, and credit goes to the teachers and students certainly," Callahan said.

But he said students' performance on the CRCT has to be weighed against their success on national tests like the SAT.

"We do parents a disservice when we make too big a deal out of the CRCT, and then they find out their students didn't fare very well on the ITBS or some nationally-normed tests," Callahan said. "Parents get kind of a whiplash affect."

The CRCT results help determine whether students in grades three, five and eight are promoted. Scores also determine whether schools meet testing goals mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Annette Higgins, the math department chairwoman at the Fulton Science Academy Middle School, said teachers bumped up their lessons to include the more challenging material the state requires students to learn.

"I'm glad the math and science scores went up, but they were some of the lowest scores so it was expected," Higgins said. "We all worked harder this year, but let's not forget that many kids in Georgia didn't pass."

The Georgia Department of Education provided classroom teachers with more lessons plans and other instructional aides during the school year.

Sue Snow, an associate state superintendent, said the extra help from the state and support from local districts were key to boosting students' scores.

"We're just thrilled with what we've seen," Snow said.