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Harder tests push students to new heights

Scores just released on Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests included good news for the state's students, something the dominant news headlines did not reflect.

Georgia's leaders are continuing their efforts to raise the bar for all students with the new Georgia Performance Standards curriculum. The curriculum overall is much stronger than the former quality core curriculum. It requires students to learn content on a deeper level so their base of knowledge is more solid. This base will allow teachers to continue to build upon their students' learning each year so they will aspire to higher levels than ever before.

With implementation of the new curriculum came the demand for a new way to test how well students are learning it. Therefore, the state's standardized assessment, the CRCT, had to be revised to measure the improved curriculum. Results for the tests that were based on the more rigorous standards indicate some students did not perform as well this year as last. From the 2006 CRCT results, it might be assumed that Georgia's students are not making much progress in the desired direction. I would argue the opposite is true.

In looking at this year's CRCT results, it is important to consider these relevant facts. The new GPS curriculum and revised CRCT were implemented for the first time in English/language arts and reading in grades one through eight, in science in grades six and seven, and in mathematics in grade six.

The results on the 19 tests in these subjects were promising, with more than 80 percent of Georgia's students passing the reading and English/language arts sections. Performance on the tests in those subject areas in 2006 cannot be compared to the performance of students last year because the tests are not the same.

On the 17 other tests for which a comparison can be made with last year's results, students showed improvement on nearly all of them. The data shows that we have more work to do in the areas of science and math, especially in our middle grades.

Furthermore, as educators developed the new CRCT, they chose to include more difficult items among the test questions. They also recommended that for a student to meet or exceed the grade-level expectations on the test - in other words, to pass it - the student would have to get more of the harder questions correct.

With these more stringent performance standards we are raising the bar for all of Georgia's students. Had the scores required to pass been left the same, passing rates would have been higher and the headlines more positive, but students would not have been held to a higher standard of learning. That is not in their long-term best interest.

Instead, Georgia's leaders chose to raise the bar, help schools identify students who need additional support and challenge students, teachers, parents, administrators and the entire community to help each student achieve at the higher level.

Raising the bar is the right thing to do. We must ensure Georgia's students are prepared to compete in the 21st century and today's global economy. The academic performance of Georgia's students cannot be improved by maintaining the status quo, and that is why the decision was made to improve the state's curriculum and assessments now. It would have been detrimental to students to wait any longer.

This summer, when the results are released of the nation's measurement of its schools under No Child Left Behind, Georgia may see more of its schools not making adequate yearly progress than in the past. The automatic reaction may be to think our schools are not being successful or effective.

We must refrain from drawing hasty conclusions. If Georgians are truly serious about leading the nation in improving student achievement, we must commit to standards of excellence that are authentic. That is the rationale behind the new GPS curriculum and revised CRCT.

With renewed effort and deeper foundations, our students and schools can reach higher levels of academic performance, and Georgia's children will be better prepared to be successful in the 21st century. That is good and encouraging news for our state.

Alvin Wilbanks is the superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools.