Originally created 03/10/01

Researchers blast Barnes' social promotion plan



ATLANTA - Education experts from Texas to the Ivy League called Gov. Roy Barnes' move to end social promotion "bad medicine" for Georgia pupils this week.

But based on the plan's unanimous approval in the House of Representatives and slim attendance at briefings deriding the proposal, few lawmakers were paying attention.

The latest round of the governor's education reform plan would use standardized tests to phase out social promotion, the practice of advancing pupils to the next grade even though they haven't learned enough to pass.

Carl Glickman, a University of Georgia education professor and chairman of the Program for School Improvement, said educators' problems aren't with the concept of ending social promotion but with the plan to use "high-stakes" testing to decide which pupils advance and which are held back.

The plan would use the state Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in third, fifth and eighth grades to determine which pupils move to the next grade.

"I don't think any of us are arguing that students should be able to wander through school without learning anything at all," said Dr. Glickman, one of several educators who visited the Capitol this week to speak against the plan.

"(But) there is not a single test that assesses truly how well a student is learning."

Dr. Glickman marveled at how Mr. Barnes' move last year to increase teacher accountability was met with fierce resistance from education organizations while the testing proposal has received relatively little public debate.

"This is more important," he said. "This affects children's futures."

Linda McNeil is a Rice University education professor who has extensively studied the Texas standardized testing system on which Mr. Barnes based his plan.

She cited statistics showing that dropouts in the state have increased in the 10 years since the inception of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), which rates schools.

In a paper on the system, she said the "direct, negative educational consequences" of the testing include a move by teachers away from reading, writing and arithmetic and toward spending class time teaching test-taking skills.

"To increase the appearance of improvement, you just dump the regular curriculum," said Dr. McNeil, who said some school systems have hired consultants to teach teachers how to help pupils take the tests. "The Texas model isn't a good model for the nation, and it certainly isn't a good model for Georgia."

But Mr. Barnes maintains that the Georgia plan would be different.

He said his other education initiatives, such as lowering class sizes in elementary schools and testing in first and second grade to identify pupils who need extra help, should offset concerns about the CRCT.

"The fact of the matter is that the plan that the governor has laid out involves much more than one test," said Mr. Barnes' spokeswoman Joselyn Butler. "These kids are helped before they get to the point they even think about holding them back."

She said concerns about "teaching to the test" are unfounded because, unlike other states, Georgia's test would be crafted by state teachers and based on state curriculum.

"The test is based on what these kids are supposed to be learning throughout the year," she said. "This isn't a test that's coming from some national company."

After a rocky start in a House committee, where it narrowly made it to the full House by an 11-7 vote, Mr. Barnes' bill has enjoyed smooth sailing in the General Assembly.

After hearing complaints from black legislators that low-income and minority pupils traditionally fare poorly on standardized tests, he added a provision to create a commission that would study racial disparity in Georgia schools and look for solutions if problems are found.

The House bill passed by a 170-0 vote Tuesday, with little discussion on the proposal's merits. And even the plan's staunchest opponents acknowledge they expect the Senate to sign off as well.

When Harvard University researcher Mindy Kornhaber tried to talk to senators about her concerns last week, she said she was called "a white liberal with low expectations" for minority pupils. Members of the Center for Children and Education, an advocacy group fighting the testing plan, said only two lawmakers showed up for a briefing the organization sponsored Thursday.

The bill - which also includes an expansion of the HOPE scholarship, a requirement of 30 more minutes of academic instruction in middle schools, and money for teachers' aides in kindergarten - is expected to be considered in the Senate next week.

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.