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Harder math, science tests lead to low scores

ATLANTA - Georgia middle school students are continuing to struggle in math and science, according to test results released Monday by state School Superintendent Kathy Cox.

Fewer than two-thirds of sixth- and seventh-graders passed a new harder version of the science portion of Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests this spring, while sixth-graders did no better on the math exam.

The numbers were even more dismal when broken into subgroups. One-third or fewer of students who have disabilities or are still learning English passed the exams, while pass rates among black and Hispanic students were in the 40s and 50s.

"A pass rate of 20, 30 and 40 percent is unacceptable,'' Cox said. "We will do better.''

The middle school math and science tests were among 19 new CRCTs put in place by the state Department of Education this year in conjunction with a new, tougher curriculum. In most cases, students had to answer more questions correctly to pass.

The CRCTs have been criticized by teachers, other professional educators and parents as too easy compared to national tests. For example, Georgia's pass rates typically are much lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than the CRCTs.

"The expectations are right,'' Cox said of the new tests. "Now, it's a matter of getting our kids to meet these expectations in high numbers.''

The CRCTs are given each spring to Georgia students in grades one through eight. Students in all of those grades take the CRCT in reading, English/language arts and math, while those in grades three through eight also take tests in science and social studies.

But the key tests are third grade reading and fifth- and eighth-grade reading and math because students must pass them to be promoted to the next grade.

This was the first year that eighth-graders were required to pass reading and math to get into high school, and Cox attributed high scores on both of those tests to the added pressure.

Seventy-seven percent of eighth graders passed the math test, an 8-point jump over last year, while 89 percent passed reading. The eighth-grade reading score can't be compared to previous years because it was one of the new tests.

Still, the 77 percent pass rate for math means 23 percent of eighth graders will have to go to summer school and pass a retest in order to be promoted.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing,'' Cox said. "That means those students will get more time, focus and attention ... and be better prepared next year.''

In cases where students fail a retest, their parents meet with the teacher and principal. The three sides then must reach a unanimous decision on whether the student should be promoted or repeat the grade.

Education and political leaders praised the department's determination to raise test standards.

"The rigor of the CRCT has to improve over time,'' said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "We'll get a more realistic read of what our students know.''

"Our children no longer compete with themselves,'' added Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "They are competing with children from India to Indianapolis.''

Cox said there was some good news in the CRCT results. At least 80 percent of students passed all but one of the reading and English/language arts tests in grades one through eight. All of those were new tests.

As for math and science, Cox said the department plans to use master teachers who would leave their classrooms and travel the state to help coach and mentor their teaching colleagues. That approach was highly successful in pulling up science scores on the high school graduation test this year.

"Good teachers tend to inspire not just their students, but other teachers,'' Callahan said.