Testing changes in store as new school year begins

jmink@macon.comAugust 3, 2013 

For the past couple of years, Kimberly Stephens has encountered additional challenges when preparing to go back to school. As a fifth-grade teacher in Houston County, Stephens not only spent her summers preparing her classroom, she also has been learning about new standards.

“They’re very rigorous,” Stephens said, “but I think it will help the learning.”

Statewide, teachers are in the midst of changes, which transform what they teach and the way schools are held accountable. It’s an overhaul that will change the way students learn, what they learn and how they are tested.

‘New level of rigor’

Currently, elementary and middle school students take the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, which measure what they have learned over the year in a variety of subjects. The scores are then used to help grade schools and districts.

That test is scheduled to change next school year due to new federal criteria, but state officials are not yet sure what all portions of the new exam will look like.

“It will be replaced by some form of a new test,” said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

Officials do know the test will be tougher and will look different. Instead of all multiple choice questions, students will be tasked with answering open-ended and critical-thinking questions. That means they will be required to develop an answer and write it out in paragraph, or essay, form.

The new tests and the added rigor that comes with them will likely drive down scores in the short term, state school Superintendent John Barge said in a statement.

“We know that as new federal criteria for state tests come into play in 2014-15, the expectations to meet standards will significantly increase,” Barge said. “The new cut scores will likely result in fewer students meeting and/or exceeding standards, but that is common when you change to a new and more rigorous test.”

Georgia recently withdrew from a national consortium that will create tests aligned with the new curriculum. The state left the consortium mainly because of the cost of administering those tests, according to The Associated Press.

Still, whatever type of new tests are in store for students, they will be more rigorous, officials say.

The latest end-of-course tests, which are given to high school students, show how challenging the new exams will be. As graduation tests phase out beginning with students who entered ninth grade in the 2011-12 academic year, the end-of-course tests count as 20 percent of those students’ final grades. And, along with the new test that will replace the CRCT, the end-of-course tests are expected to be more challenging.

For the first time, the latest round of end-of-course test results included scores in coordinate algebra, a new, challenging course. The state pass rate for that exam, at 37 percent, was among the lowest of the subjects.

“The coordinate algebra results give us a first look at the new level of rigor that is coming with new federal criteria for state tests,” Barge said in a news release. “Over time, I am confident that our students will become more comfortable with the new level of rigor and will demonstrate that in their college and career readiness.”

Tests tied to new curriculum

Exams are changing to line up with a new curriculum, which aims to better prepare students for college and careers.

As it was rolled out in Georgia schools last academic year, the new common core standards have been criticized by some as a federal attempt to take over state education, according to media reports.

Still, officials say common core is not too different from the curriculum Georgia schools already had in place.

“The good thing for us is it doesn’t differ much at all,” Cardoza said. “We had a standard-based curriculum before everybody went to common core.”

Georgia changed its performance standards in 2004, which was a major shift, Cardoza said. Before, teachers were tasked with covering a multitude of topics but not too in-depth. The standards changed to make sure students mastered topics and proved they understood the concepts, he said.

State education officials had a hand in the new common core, mainly because Georgia’s curriculum already was so similar, he said.

While teachers, such as Stephens, recognize an increase in curriculum rigor, many agree it’s similar to what already was in place.

“I like them. They’re not much different,” said Tara Elderkin, a special education teacher at Houston County High School. “And they’re not out of reach. The students can do it.”

Still, there are some differences. Some of the concepts formerly taught in fourth grade, for example, are now taught in third grade, officials say.

In Houston County, coaches have been on hand to help teachers navigate the new curriculum standards. When recent test scores were released, Houston officials expected a bigger dip due to the curriculum change, Superintendent Robin Hines said during a board of education retreat.

“We would have seen a bigger drop if we weren’t prepared,” he said.

School accountability

While students will take new tests, school districts also are examined differently.

School and district scores were released this year under Georgia’s new accountability system, the College and Career Ready Performance Index. It’s a shift from past accountability standards, with schools receiving grades on a 100 point scale, much like report cards. Additionally, schools are graded on more than just test scores.

While test scores still play a big role, schools also are scored on attendance, graduation rates, school climate, finances and other factors.

“It’s looking at all kinds of things done in school,” Cardoza said.

Locally, school officials applaud CCRPI, saying it’s an improvement compared to the old system under No Child Left Behind, which gave schools a pass or fail grade and did not take other factors into account.

As far as penalties for not meeting the new standards, there are no specific consequences tied to CCRPI for now, Cardoza said.

For more than a year, school districts will continue to be tagged as priority, focus or alert districts if their test scores are among the lowest in the state. The state intervenes and assists in those schools.

“We’ll be looking at the next steps based on the CCRPI,” he said. “Do we do something based on a particular score? What does that mean in terms of consequences? Those are things we have a little time on.”

But for teachers, such as Stephens, the real test is whether students are ready for life after high school.

“It’s all about getting them college prepared,” she said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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