Originally created 03/15/04

Pupils to pass, fail based on reading



Kim Landrum, the mother of a Stevens Creek Elementary School third-grader, was unaware of the gravity of the test her son will soon take - a test that will likely be his gateway to fourth grade.

"I knew they were doing testing in older grades, but I didn't realize it was going to be in third grade for promotion to fourth grade," she said.In 2002, Gov. Roy Barnes pushed through a law designed to end social promotion. There's legislation in the hopper to delay it, but if nothing changes, third-graders will have to pass the reading portion of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test this year to be promoted to fourth grade.

The test assesses a pupil's knowledge of the Georgia curricula in language arts, reading and mathematics. Next year, fifth-graders will have to meet testing standards to be promoted, and eighth-graders will be added in the 2005-06 school year.

School officials are wrestling with the implications of the Academic Placement and Promotion Policy, which could escalate third-grade retention rates and create a classroom logjam .

Judging from past test results, the third-grade retention rate could be six times greater for Columbia County and seven times more in Richmond County.

Columbia County held back only 16 third-grade pupils last year, but in 2001-02 - the last time third-graders took the test - about 100 pupils did not pass the reading portion . Under the proposed rules, those children would hit a hurdle to their next grade level.

Richmond County retained 83 third-graders last year. In 2001-02, when Richmond County third-graders took the test , 577 failed the reading portion of the test.

Statewide, as many as 26,000 third-graders could fail the exam, and about 11,000 of them might be held back next school year, Georgia Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox said last week.If the test is administered in the spring, Ms. Cox said, 16 percent to 23 percent of Georgia's 116,000 third-graders will fail.

Children who fail will be offered tutoring and the opportunity to take the test again. Even with the second chance, Ms. Cox predicts that 10 percent, or about 11,000 pupils, would be unable to move to the fourth grade at the end of the summer.

How local school officials plan to offer that second chance before the new school year starts is the dilemma.

Offering help

Columbia County provides summer school in middle and high school, but elementary summer school would be a whole new ball game."How many teachers? How many sites? We're trying to get some definite plan down," said Columbia County School Super‚intendent Tommy Price . "We could have about 100 kids coming from all schools. How do you best prepare them to take that test again? How long will it take to get a child up to speed - is it two weeks, a week, a month?"

Richmond County already has summer school for elementary pupils , along with after-school and Saturday programs for those who need more help.

Educators are concerned that the test results will not be returned in time. The test will be administered to third-graders in Columbia County on April 20, and will be given in Richmond County a week later . School ends about a month later.

Last year, state officials did not receive test results until July 18, and local school officials did not receive them until after the school year had begun.

State officials have contracted with a new test vendor, who has promised a quick turnaround on results. But local school officials, who have faced several years of various testing troubles , are skeptical."A one-month window - that's not a lot of time." Mr. Price said.

Whether to wait

Piloted in 1998, the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test is a measure of how well pupils are learning the state's Quality Core Curriculum.

In the 2000-01 school year, grades four, six and eight were tested for the first time, and in 2001-02, first- through eighth-graders were tested. In 2002-03, a problem with a test vendor narrowed the administration to fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders.

The plan is for pupils in first through eighth grades to be tested this year.In the Legislature, House Education Committee Chairman Bob Holmes, D-Atlanta, has introduced a bill that would delay implementation of the Georgia Academic Placement and Promotion Policy for one year. The bill was essentially gutted by an amendment implementing the promotion-retention policy unless the State Board of Education does not receive the test results by May 26, at which time it could delay it.Mr. Holmes said he is not happy with the amended bill. The delay is necessary, he said, because school systems have not implemented programs to help failing pupils.

"How can you say without completely distorting what you mean by accountability that you can have a first-grader tested, not give him any support, and fail him two years later because he didn't pass the test?" Mr. Holmes said. "You talk about No Child Left Behind. This will guarantee that these children are left behind."

Sen. Joey Brush Jr., R-Appling, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, supports the bill in its amended form. He agrees that some school systems have been lax in putting supportive services in place. But, he asks, if not now, then when?

"It's not worked as smoothly as possible. It's not been done as strongly as a lot of us would like," Mr. Brush said.

"But it gets down to symbolism - whether these kids fail or pass the CRCT reading test, we still have to teach them to read. Whether we call them a third-grader or call them a fourth-grader is somewhat a lesser con‚cern of mine."

Looming deadline

While legislators wrangle with changing the policy, the clock is ticking with just weeks left before the test .

"It's a very short time frame to get all this accomplished," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 57,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators . "It's unfair to students and their parents to put them on this short a timeline. No one wants to see a third-grader who can't read become a fourth-grader who can't read. But you just can't pass a bumper sticker law and think it's going to make everything magically happen overnight."

During the 2001 legislative session, the Georgia Educators group supported the legislation with the understanding that at-risk pupils would be identified early and given the support they need. Because that hasn't happened, it now supports delaying implementation.

"We are not in favor of social promotion, but unless you put in place programs to early identify children and have something in place for those who fail to get over this barrier, then you've got a calamity on your hands," Mr. Callahan said.

Test tremors

One concern of educators is anxiety caused by such high-stakes testing. A safety valve in the policy would allow promotion of some third-graders who don't pass the reading portion, Mr. Price said.

"We will probably have situations where a child performs poorly on the test but receives a good grade in the class and demonstrates to his teacher that he is proficient in reading," Mr. Price said.

"There is a mechanism to override the law and promote the child, but the child, parent and the teacher together have got to agree that it is in the child's best interest, that he would be best served by promotion."

Karen Tankersley said she learned about the importance of the test from a letter sent home from school.

But she doesn't plan to share that information with her son Dillon, a third-grader at Euchee Creek.

"I don't think they need to know that information," she said. "I have some friends whose children are struggling with the everyday tests. If you add that if you don't pass that test you will fail, that just sets them up to fail. I just stress to him do his best. That's all he can do."

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, ext. 113,or melissa.hall@augustachronicle.com.