ATLANTA - Georgia schools slid backward this year in meeting academic standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Law.
According to figures released Tuesday by the state Department of Education, 78.7 percent of schools made adequate yearly progress this year, down from 81.9 percent last year.
The news for high schools was particularly discouraging. Only 51 percent of high schools in Georgia made AYP this year, a huge drop of a dozen points from the 63 percent set last year.
However, the number of schools in the "needs improvement'' category - schools that have failed to make AYP for two or more years - also dropped to 310 this year from 354 during the 2004-05 term.
"These schools have been taking bold steps ... and it is paying off,'' school School Superintendent Kathy Cox said in a written statement.
Cox, a Republican seeking re-nomination in next week's primary, has been under fire in recent weeks from a GOP challenger and both Democrats running for the office, citing a series of disappointing statistics that have come out in recent months.
Earlier this year, Georgia fell into last place in SAT scores.
The latest state curriculum test results released last month also were dismal, particularly middle school math and science scores.
"We've been spending most of our time and effort in elementary schools ... but, unfortunately overlooking high schools,'' said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
But Cox said fewer high schools are meeting AYP because the state Department of Education has made it more difficult for them to reach the standard.
For example, a higher percentage of students had to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Tests in English and math this year in order for a school to make AYP.
The state also put in place a more rigorous curriculum in the middle schools, which made the tests used to determine whether schools met AYP tougher to pass, Cox said.
"We raised expectations of our students and teachers at all levels, and they rose to the challenge,'' she said.
The middle schools were the only grades to show improvement in this year's report. More than two-thirds made AYP, up from 57.4 percent last year.
Besides the large decrease in the high school AYP rate, Georgia elementary schools are suffered a drop-off, although from a lofty level.
Nearly 90.5 percent of elementary schools made AYP, down from 95.4 percent last year.
But what Cox emphasized on Tuesday was the 99 schools that came off the needs improvement list. That figure combined with the 55 schools added to the list for the first time produced a net decrease of 44.
The needs improvement category is a key element of the federal law. Schools that land on the list are subject to a variety of penalties, depending on how many years they remain there.
In less serious cases, schools must provide free tutoring to students. A longer stay on the list forces schools to offer students transfers to higher-performing schools in the district.
In the most severe instances, the state can take control of an offending school and fire teachers, administrators and other staff.