When school year ends, Georgia leaving the 'No Child Left Behind' law behind

Given the chance, Georgia education officials wasted no time leaping to an alternative to the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Under a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, this is the last academic year Georgia and nine other states will be subject to the student-performance measure that determines if each school is making adequate yearly progress.
As a result, students feeling spring fever aren’t the only ones counting down the remaining days of this school year.
Ironically, Georgia was one of the first states to embrace what become No Child Left Behind. When Roy Barnes was governor, he borrowed ideas enacted by George W. Bush during his time as Texas governor.
Texas was showing results closing the achievement gap between minority students and whites. Bush liked to say it was because educators were being held accountable for every student, not just the brightest.
The idea was to track test scores for every group of child by race, grade, gender and handicap. None were to be swept aside.
From the start, the concept was controversial in Georgia. Business groups supported it. Education groups opposed it. In the long run, it became a factor in Barnes’ re-election defeat because teachers perceived his sales pitch as blaming them for the quality of Georgia’s schools.
Georgia had hardly begun implementing its education-reform law when Barnes was ousted, and his successor Sonny Perdue began repealing parts of it, especially teacher tenure that had gotten Barnes in so much hot water.
Perdue couldn’t erase all of it because Bush had become president, making education accountability his top policy goal before the 9/11 attacks. The president recruited U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., to work with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to get the law passed since Isakson had once chaired Georgia’s State Board of Education.

So, the Peach State was committed to accountability.

Still, teachers chaffed at its rigidity. After all, standing in front of two-dozen kids every day requires being a little bit of a ham, and the people who become teachers tend to be more of a creative bent, which is why they didn’t become engineers or accountants.

What teachers prefer is to cover material at the pace of each class, adding elements that engage students and glossing over those that don’t. Then the tests are based on what was actually covered.

Under No Child Left Behind, the tests are based on what the school board determines is supposed to be covered to prepare students for the next grade.

Teachers found that getting to all the material meant omitting those fun, engagement projects and sticking to the text. It left less room for creativity, and teachers weren’t happy.

They talked about “teaching to the test” as if adherence to the state’s prescribed curriculum were a bad thing. They also complained of “too many tests” because they continued to give students the traditional exams over what was actually covered for grading purposes in addition to the required, standardized tests which could have been used for grading.

Georgia’s Superintendent of Schools John Barge has overseen the creation of the state’s alternative measurement tool to the tests required by No Child Left Behind. After hundreds of hours of discussions around the state with teachers and others, he came up with the inelegantly named Georgia College and Career Ready Performance Index.

“We are not shirking from accountability,” he said. “I have not come across an educator in this state afraid of accountability. But what they want is to be held accountable for bulk of the work that they do, not just a single test score.”

The index is a 0-100 annual score for each school. While it includes test results, it also includes factors like graduation rate and “post high school readiness.”

Ten of the 19 elements in the high-school index come from the readiness category. That includes percentage of students completing career, technical and agricultural education “pathways,” or essentially three or four courses useful for one of a 10 broad career areas.

Schools get extra points for students who earn career certificates, like one for nursing assistants or carpentry, those who do well on college-level courses and for those who score over a 1550 on the SAT.

Where No Child Left Behind sought to be transformative in prodding educators to do something different, the new index is rooted in the desire to measure schools on what they already do. In other words, schools are no long expected to radically change, just get better at what they currently do.

It represents a swing of the pendulum, giving the education system a breather from a decade under No Child, a law Barge describes as needed.

“Absolutely, it was the right thing to do, the necessary thing to do, and we see a lot of progress here in Georgia,” he said.

However, when the school bell rings in the fall, No Child will have gone with the wind, and schools will return to improving on what they’ve always done.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News in Atlanta.)



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