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Honesty is best policy as Georgia learns fewer than 40 percent of kids on track in reading, math

Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio are president and vice president, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and fathers of school-aged children.

In this essay, they urge Georgia to stay the course with its higher standards despite new statewide test results showing the majority of students are not proficient.

As the AJC reported:

"These results show a lower level of student proficiency than Georgians are used to seeing, but that does not mean Georgia students know less or that teachers are not doing a great job, " state schools Superintendent Richard Woods said. "It means they've been asked to clear a higher bar."

The old Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and high school End of Course Tests "set some of the lowest expectations for student proficiency in the nation," said Woods, who took office in January.

The preliminary results released Thursday were statewide averages by grade and subject that divided students into four levels of performance, from failing to "distinguished." Some expect a push back from parents when the actual student scores are delivered in October.

"There'll be a little bit of a backlash for sure because we need someone to blame, " said Lisa-Marie Haygood, a Cherokee County parent and Georgia's new state PTA president. "I think you're going to feel a knee-jerk reaction immediately."

Haygood applauded the higher test expectations. "It's not fair to tell people they're great if they're just OK," she said. "It's going to be a better measure of where we are."

Georgia felt pressure to raise its standards because its testing system routinely ranked at, or near the bottom, for rigor.

With that background, here is the column.

By Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio

Five long years ago, Georgia and more than 40 other states adopted tough new standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in elementary and secondary schools. Now we’ve reached a critical milestone in this effort, as the public just got to see for the first time the scores on the new tests aligned to the standards. The news was sobering.

Fewer than 40 percent of Georgia’s students are on track in reading and math. Though the scores may come as a shock to many, let us explain why people shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

First it’s important to remember why so many states started down this path in the first place. Under federal law, every state must test children every year in grades three through eight and once in high school to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.

But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient.” Unfortunately, most states, including Georgia, set a very low bar. They “juked the stats.” As late as 2013, Georgia was reporting that virtually all of its fourth graders were “proficient” in reading, whereas a national assessment put the number at less than thirty percent. That was an enormous “honesty gap”—among the largest in the country.

The result was a comforting illusion that most children were on track to succeed in college, carve out satisfying careers, and stand on their own two feet. To put it plainly, it was a lie. Imagine being told year after year that you’re doing just fine, only to find out when you apply for college or a job, that you’re simply not as prepared as you need to be.

Such experiences were not isolated cases. Every year, more than half of Georgia’s students entering the state’s public colleges must take “remedial” courses when they arrive on campus. Many of those students will leave without a degree, or any kind of credential. That’s a lousy way to start one’s adult life.

The most important step to fixing this problem is to ensure our children are ready for the next grade, and when they turn 18, for college or work. Several national studies, including analyses of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show that just 35 to 40 percent of high school graduates leave our education system at the “college prepared” level. Considering that 20 percent of our children don’t even make it to graduation day, that means that maybe a third of our kids nationally are getting to that college-ready mark. (Not coincidentally, about a third of young people today complete a four-year college degree.)

The new standards should help to boost college readiness — and college completion — by significantly raising expectations, starting in kindergarten. But we shouldn’t be surprised that Georgia found that less than forty percent of its students are “on track” for college. In fact, that’s what we should expect. Parents, in other words, are finally learning the truth.

This is a big shift, but a necessary one, from the Lake Wobegon days, when, like in Garrison Keillor’s fictional town, all the children were above average. Parents and taxpayers should resist the siren song of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack the new standards or the associated tests. They may not be perfect, but they are finally giving parents, educators, and taxpayers a much more honest assessment of how our children are doing. Virtually all kids aspire to go to college and prepare for a satisfying career. Now, at last, we know if they’re on track to do so.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.