A New Day for Georgia Education

By Dr. Benjamin Scafidi and Dr. Holly Robinson

The new, more rigorous statewide curriculum, the Georgia Performance Standards, which will make our students and schools more globally competitive, is now being implemented. The results of the 2006 Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) are trickling in and early indications are that scores have dropped on some tests. This, however, is actually good news.

Why are we celebrating? Several national organizations – most recently the RAND Corporation – point out that every state in the nation has lower standards on its own curriculum-based exams relative to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP, known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” is a highly regarded battery of tests designed to measure what students know and can do in reading, writing, mathematics and science.

NAEP scores provide one of the only accurate ways to compare student achievement across states and to measure each state’s progress over time. Of the 41 states that participated in NAEP in 2003, every one had higher proportions of students passing their own state exams than passing NAEP.  In many cases the differences were striking – and Georgia was among the worst offenders.

Eighty percent of Georgia fourth-graders passed the CRCT reading exam in 2003, RAND found.  Just 27 percent of fourth-graders passed the 2003 NAEP reading exam – a 53 percentage-point discrepancy.

What does this mean?  It means that we had shockingly low expectations. Essentially, we fibbed to our students and their families, telling them that most can read well when, in fact, most of them cannot.  We told eight out every 10 fourth-grade students that they were proficient readers, while the folks at NAEP – generally regarded as the best of the best – found that about three out of four could not read at grade level.

Only Mississippi and Texas had lower expectations than we did.  If Georgia doesn’t expect much from its children, how can they be expected to learn or achieve much?

The good news is that this situation is well on its way to being corrected in Georgia, where State School Superintendent Kathy Cox and her team have spent the past few years rewriting the curriculum. The fruits of their labor have earned national accolades: The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation ranked the Georgia Performance Standards sixth in the nation in Mathematics, seventh in Reading/Language Arts and 12th in Science. When the organization ranked states in 2000, Georgia tied for last place for its Science curriculum. Social studies rankings for all states should be out soon; look for more good news for Georgia, where the superintendent and the State Board of Education have pledged to constantly upgrade the curriculum to ensure continuous improvement.

One criterion in ranking each state’s curriculum was rigor. Georgia’s curriculum has been made much more rigorous. The Georgia Department of Education is rewriting state tests to accurately assess how students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills the new curriculum demands. The first group of new tests was administered this spring.

Clearly, higher expectations of students will be necessary for the future of Georgia. Those who compare 2006 scores on the new, more rigorous tests with 2005 scores based on very low expectations would be making an invalid comparison. Those who believe local schools are doing a poorer job because of lower pass rates would be making an incorrect assumption; scores are up on tests that have not yet become more rigorous. There will be parents upset that their child must attend summer school or repeat a grade. Children who are behind need extra help to succeed, and that is one purpose of testing: to discern those who need that help.

A more rigorous state curriculum means more rigorous questions on state tests, and students must answer more questions correctly to pass. Initially, the percentage of students passing the exams will drop. And this is indeed good news. For far too long Georgia has had low expectations of students. The bar has been raised; the short-term pain is far outweighed by the long-term gain as students set their aspirations higher.

Now it’s up to students, parents, schools and communities to face the challenge and stay the course – without being diverted by politics or political correctness.

Holly Robinson is senior vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Benjamin Scafidi is an associate professor of economics at Georgia College & State University and formerly served as the education policy advisor to Governor Sonny Perdue and on the staff of both of Governor Roy Barnes’ Education Reform Study Commissions. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 2, 2006). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and their affiliations are cited.