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Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 11:51am

Ga. May Overhaul How Success is Measured in Schools

After a decade of leaning on standardized test scores to determine whether schools are meeting federal benchmarks, Georgia may soon be able to overhaul how it measures success in public education.

State education officials plan to apply next month for a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements, joining a growing number of states looking for relief from the widely criticized education law. State schools Superintendent John Barge said in an interview with The Associated Press that he wants to add a long list of measures to the formula Georgia uses to determine whether a school passes muster.

That list will likely include scores on ACT and SAT college entrance exams, performance on tests for Advancement Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and success in career tech classes like automotive repair. It also could include how students perform in dual enrollment classes where they earn both high school and college credit simultaneously and scores on end-of-course exams.

The idea, Barge said, is to look at the complete picture of what schools provide students rather than just scores on one standardized test.

"What we've done with No Child Left Behind is teach kids how to pass a test," Barge said. "They are far from ready for life beyond high school."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Monday that he was effectively gutting the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law by allowing states to apply for waivers from many of the law's requirements. The sanctions in the law — which can range from offering free tutoring to closing down entirely — will remain but states will no longer be required to have every student performing on grade level in math and English by 2014.

The Obama administration has repeatedly called for an overhaul of the 2001 law, but it has become mired in the increasingly bipartisan climate in Congress.

Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if the law is not changed. Education experts have questioned that estimate, but state officials report a growing number of schools facing sanctions under the law.

About 65 percent of Georgia's schools did not make "adequate yearly progress" this year, compared to more than 70 percent last year. Most states are slipping in their performance because the bar for meeting standards goes up every year, and many states saved the biggest gains for the later years of the 2001 law.

Gaining a waiver to the federal law would be welcomed relief for Georgia schools, where the pressure to improve test scores has grown immense in recent years, state education experts said. Taking more than one test into account could help prevent scandals like the one in Atlanta schools, where state investigators found widespread cheating in nearly half the district's 100 schools dating back to 2001.

"It will lower the stress level around the testing program, help to broaden the curriculum for teachers and students alike, and make it much harder to cheat the system," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents more than 80,000 educators.

Educators agree that No Child Left Behind brought attention to the nation's achievement gap and made sure schools focused on the performance of minority, immigrant and special needs students. Before the law, it was easy for school to hide lower-performing groups of students in the performance of the entire student body, educators said.

For local school superintendents like Molly Howard, overhauling Georgia's school accountability system means being able to look long-term at a child's academic career rather than just trying to help that student to pass a test at the end of each year. The Jefferson County schools superintendent said she hopes schools will be able to stop focusing on narrow things rather than preparing students to be college and career ready."

"It allows us as schools to do the work that we should be about in looking at all children and with the end in mind," said Howard, whose rural east Georgia district has about 3,500 students in six schools. "It causes us to begin to look as early as the child entering school at the end results, not at 'What does this child need to do to complete first-grade?' It expands our vision.'"