When midstate schools reopen in August, they will no longer be judged by the same rules that have frustrated educators for more than a decade.
State education officials are still ironing out details of how schools will be evaluated, but one thing is certain: Georgias waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act comes with a big, collective sigh of relief.
Something had to change, said Sally FitzGerald, education policy specialist for the Georgia PTA. The 2013-14 school year is right around the corner, and all students were to be reading at grade level. That was never possible unless we shipped to another country all students whose first language was something other than English, and we exported all special education students to some non-NCLB land.
A federal law heralded as the biggest attempt yet to close achievement gaps between students, No Child Left Behind was also widely criticized for unfairly penalizing basically good schools while subjecting students to a test-centric curriculum.
But earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education granted Georgia a waiver from the law, a move that now puts the state among 32 others that have successfully sought relief. The waivers are considered a temporary stopgap while Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Congress work to rewrite the act.
In its place, state officials had to agree to institute their own accountability framework, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, which takes into account a wider range of factors, including test scores, Advanced Placement course enrollment, graduation rates and attendance.
The goal is to measure how well schools get elementary students ready for middle school, middle schoolers ready for high school, and high school students ready for college or the work force.
Its a move educators and administrators have welcomed, even as they enter the year not knowing exactly how the revised accountability standards will affect their schools.
There are a lot of things that are in draft form that we still have some questions about, said Eric Payne, Houston Countys assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Its kind of like receiving the rules after the game starts.
While the Georgia Department of Education has identified what it wants to measure, an advisory committee -- which includes Houston County school Superintendent Robin Hines -- is still discussing how to weigh those considerations to come up with 100-point scaled scores. Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state education department, said officials hope to announce the indexed score by March.
Despite the uncertainty, educator and parent groups say the index will paint a more accurate picture of a schools performance.
We have a general idea of what the index is going to look like, but as far as how its all going to come together, its a little scary going into a school year without all the answers, said Michelle Masters, principal of Houston County High School. But in the end, I think the index is going to be a much more fair assessment of a school.
FitzGerald believes parents should embrace the College and Career Ready Performance Index.
Giving a high school credit for more students taking AP courses is fairer, she said. Exposing students to career opportunities in most grades is fairer. Building virtual courses for greater exposure for the student is fairer.
Test scores not sole measure of success
Under No Child Left Behind, schools had to annually test students on reading and math. If schools didnt show progress -- both overall and within defined subgroups -- they could be found to have failed to make adequate yearly progress, commonly known as AYP.
Test scores still will figure significantly in the states College and Career Ready Performance Index, but they wont be the sole determinant of a schools success. Another change is the subject matter considered: Whereas only math and reading counted in No Child Left Behind, the index also will consider social studies and science.
Also, the new guidelines include phasing out the Georgia High School Graduation Test in favor of end-of-course tests, a move that has found a broad range of support. Students who entered ninth grade in 2011 or later will be required to pass end-of-course tests instead of the graduation test. The end-of-course tests, given in grades 9-12, will now count for 20 percent of students final grades, up from 15 percent. Students still will be required to pass the Georgia High School Writing Test.
With the graduation test, (students) would get tested in the 11th grade year on small facts that they were supposed to remember from their ninth grade year, Masters said. It wasnt critical thinking. It wasnt concepts. It was small facts. We need to be teaching kids to think.
The revised accountability guidelines also classify Title I schools -- higher-poverty schools that receive extra federal dollars -- into four categories, from best-performing to worst: Reward, Priority, Focus and Alert. Reward schools, the highest-performing and highest-progressing schools, will be announced in September.
The other three groups were named in March. Priority schools are among the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools in the state, based on the achievement of all students. Focus schools are ones with the largest achievement gaps in test scores or graduation rates. Schools -- both Title I and non-Title I -- with even more troubling graduation rates or test scores can be given the Alert status. Such labels bring state help, financial and otherwise.
As we move through the next year, well have the opportunity to see if those designations are helpful, and if theyre getting the kinds of results we want for our kids, said Susanne Griffin-Ziebart, Bibb Countys deputy superintendent of school improvement and redesign.
Masters said she appreciates how the state guidelines wont ignore the need to improve the performance of traditionally underperforming subgroups, such as students with disabilities.
Im glad that part of it isnt going away, Masters said. If there was anything good about No Child Left Behind, it was that it forced us to look at students that I think in the past may have been forgotten about.
An aspect of No Child Left Behind most loved by parents is the laws requirement that troubled schools must help students seek tutoring or let them transfer elsewhere. Those provisions wont exist under the state guidelines, but schools will be required to offer extra learning time.
Lori Rodgers, Bibb Countys executive director of special programs, said the district will have an as-yet undetermined system in place for students to get extra support.
There will be an opportunity for schools that are priority schools or focus schools to have extra opportunities for students who are in greatest need, said Rodgers. We will be involving our parents in the future who were affected. (They) will have an opportunity to come and give input on what would be the best way to implement this program.
Teacher pay and student achievement
One aspect of the waiver has hit a snag. Federal officials have asked Georgia to develop a teacher evaluation system that factors in student achievement. Eventually, they want teacher pay to be tied to student achievement.
Twenty-six Georgia school systems -- including Bibb -- are participating in a pilot program to revise teacher evaluations as part of the states $400 million grant from Race to the Top, an Obama administration initiative thats supposed to reward successful school reform.
Georgia originally agreed to include student feedback in teachers evaluations but then decided principals should only use the feedback as they made their own evaluations.
Federal officials balked, warning state officials Georgia could lose grant money. Cardoza said the issue is more about process and substance and unlikely to affect Race to the Top funds.
Were not going to implement whats not going to work and teachers are not going to feel is a good evaluation of them, Cardoza said.
As for tying teacher pay to student achievement, Cardoza said the state focused primarily on developing a better evaluation method.
You cant start talking about tying pay to it until you have a good evaluation system, he said.
Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 83,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said the organization supports changes to school accountability rules. It also stands firmly behind revising how teachers are evaluated. As for linking test scores and teacher pay, Callahan alluded to the states tight budget.
To talk about a pay-for-performance system is kind of ludicrous now, Callahan said.