ATLANTA - Public education in Georgia is either the worst in the nation or making some of the most dramatic gains in the South.
Depending on who's talking, recent test scores are either a sure sign that Gov. Roy Barnes' aggressive school reforms are working or an indictment of an "education failure" in the state's top office.
The performance of schoolchildren has never been immune to the push and pull of politics. But with November's election looming, the rhetoric has been cranked up even higher, with both sides providing figures to back up their arguments.
Critics of the governor, including his Republican challenger, Sonny Perdue, note stagnant SAT scores that dropped Georgia to 50th in the nation, ahead of only Washington, D.C.
But Mr. Barnes and some top education officials say the college-entrance tests are a poor way to compare state-to-state achievement and a particularly unfair judge of the governor's 2-year-old reform effort.
They point to state curriculum tests that show more schools and pupils passing now than in 2000, when the tests started.
Experts say it's not an either-or situation - that a combination of factors, not a single set of test scores, is needed to give a true look at school performance.
"You have to look at multiple messages to get a clear picture," said Jim Watts, the vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board. "No one, single test is going to provide all the answers as to what your current status is or what you should do."
When SAT results were announced last month, Georgia's average score, 980, was the same as last year and 12 points up from five years ago.
But Georgia's one-year stall allowed South Carolina, which gained 7 points, to move into 49th place. Mr. Perdue, hoping to unseat a Democrat who has made education his top priority, wasted no time blasting the governor over the scores.
"Roy Barnes may want to go hide behind every excuse for his education failures, but the parents of Georgia aren't buying it," Mr. Perdue said Tuesday. "They know what the measure is, and they know they're being failed."
Mr. Perdue said that, if elected, he would push for a statewide, online SAT-preparation course and even suggested creating a credited, high school class to help pupils get ready for the test.
"The SAT is a fairly tricky test," he said. "(The class) would show kids what they can expect and ... show them the kind of questions they'll be exposed to."
Mr. Watts said the SAT isn't a fair comparison between states. About half the states in the nation primarily use the SAT, but in the other half, only a handful of students looking to go to college out-of-state take the test.
"You've got a very small minority of students, say in Mississippi, who take the SAT," Mr. Watts said. "Those are students who are generally applying to eastern colleges and universities, so they are arguably Mississippi's cream of the crop."
Mr. Barnes and his staff agree. They say a better judge of pupils' progress in Georgia are results from the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs). The tests, given to elementary and middle school pupils, are based on Georgia curriculum and will ultimately be used to grade schools under Mr. Barnes' reform plan.
Since 2000, the number of schools where more than 70 percent of pupils failed either the reading, English or math CRCT dropped from 70 to 32.
Scores for almost every group of pupils have gone up between 2000 and 2002. The most dramatic example was fourth-grade reading, where 79 percent of pupils passed, up from 65 percent in 2000.
"The SAT scores reflect where Georgia has been in education," said Barnes campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Kirijan. "The CRCT scores show where Georgia is going."
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