State strives to race to top in education

Georgia is in a race to the top and, in many respects, we're leading the way.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced recently that $5 billion in grants are being made available to states that -- in his words -- adopt "college and career-ready internationally benchmarked standards" and "state of the art data collection systems, assessments and curricula to meet these higher standards."

To me, it sounds like Secretary Duncan was reading straight from our Strategic Plan. For six years, Georgia has been focused on implementing a world-class curriculum, raising expectations and using quality data to make decisions. We have received high marks for the policies and standards we've put in place from groups across the nation.

But the journey to "the top" is not always smooth and raising standards is not easy. The truth is that the material that Georgia students are learning today is more rigorous than it has ever been and, consequently, the assessments they are taking are more difficult.

Over the past few years, we've seen the pass rates on our state tests -- like the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and End of Course Tests -- drop in the first year we've implemented our new curriculum and given the new state exams. This is to be expected: Whenever you raise the bar, there's going to be a temporary drop in the number of people that can reach that bar. That's true in any situation.

THE GOOD NEWS IS that in the second and third year of the new curriculum, we have seen test scores increase in all subjects and all grades.

However, in all the focus on tests, pass rates and percentages, it's easy to forget the big picture: The mission of our public school system is to prepare students to be successful in life. In the 21st century, we must make sure our students have higher-order thinking and analytical skills, the ability to communicate clearly and a deeper understanding of mathematics and science.

We could certainly keep our standards low and get high test scores that make everyone feel good, but how does that help our students? Ultimately, we would be setting them up for failure later as they go on in their education and in life.

Instead, we are following a national, bipartisan call for higher standards and higher expectations for all students, regardless of whether they plan to attend college, go right into the workplace or both.

So, what does this rigor look like?

Most of this year's ninth-graders took the new Mathematics I or Accelerated Mathematics I classes, which include parts of algebra, geometry and statistics. These new courses are certainly more challenging than the old Algebra I class, as is the new Mathematics I End of Course Test.

THIS IS A "FIELD TEST" year for the Math I EOCT, so the results won't count, but I'm sure any ninth-grader will tell you the test was very challenging (and I'm sure I'll get a full report from my ninth-grader!).

In the coming weeks we will release some of the questions from the Math I EOCT to give the public an idea of what we are asking students to learn.

When you see the questions, I think you'll agree that we are asking our students to learn more rigorous mathematics.

Georgia is not going down this road alone. There are 35 states across the United States that are raising standards and asking all students -- regardless of their plans after high school -- to take a rigorous core of classes in mathematics, science, English language arts and social studies.

But in Georgia, we are ahead of the game and are combining those core academics with improved career, technical and agricultural education programs, increased public school choice options and innovative approaches that allow school-level educators to decide what is best for their students.

So, as the results of our state tests roll in over the next several weeks and months, please keep this in mind: If our students are going to win the race to the top, we must be dedicated to giving them the tools and information they need to run that race.

It won't always be easy but, in the end, it will be worth it.

(The writer, a parent and a veteran classroom teacher, is Georgia's superintendent of schools.)

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