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Testing, truancy require team effort

By Greg Gelpi

Improving test scores is always a challenge, but before students can do well on tests they must be at school to take the tests.

School officials are pushing hard to raise test scores, but are also pushing hard to raise participation for the tests.

As part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public schools are being held accountable for how their students do on standardized tests. In addition to how well students do, at least 95 percent of the students must take the tests at each school.

"Honestly, I'm not even satisfied with that," said Ray Blakely, the coordinator of testing for Clayton County schools. "I think our goal is to have 100 percent."

To increase participation, Blakely said the system is offering more makeup dates. It's important for students to take the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and the Georgia High School Graduation Tests for a number of reasons. The consequences of these tests are increasing.

Third-graders, who do not pass the reading portion of the CRCT, will not advance to the fourth grade, he said. Students who don't pass the high school graduation test will not graduate.

"If you don't take the test, then you can't pass it," Blakely said. "For high school students, it's critical."

For all students it's important to take the tests because the tests give teachers an idea of the students' strengths and weaknesses and enable the school to adjust the curriculum to address those strengths and weaknesses.

Before students even began preparing for testing, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said officials were preparing for students to take tests. Officials met before the school year to reduce truancy, so that students would be prepared to take tests and would be at school for the tests.

"Truancy has a domino effect," he said. "It affects all of us in a number of ways."

Teske said getting children to school is more important now with No Child Left Behind, since truancy impacts all students at a school.

He said he signed off on about 10 orders for Department of Family and Children and Services hearings for elementary students with "excessive absences" earlier this month.

"The research reflects what I see anecdotally in the courtroom," Teske said. "Truancy in early childhood development is a form of maltreatment."

Truancy also impacts society as a whole, Teske said. Failure to nourish children at a young age can lead to acting out at an older age, he said. Truants tend to grow up to become delinquents.

Making the standard of 95 percent participation in testing begins before school does, and reducing truancy means addressing the problem before it starts, Teske said. Reviewing records he found that older students with high numbers of absences often had similar absentee problems when they were younger.

And the problems start at home, Teske said.

"Six-year-olds and 7-year-olds don't skip school on their own," he said. "They get help from their parents."

In some cases, educational neglect is filed against parents, Teske said, which could lead to contempt of court and possible jail time for parents who don't cooperate. Children are removed from homes in a handful of cases.

"What can I do?" Teske asked. "Not let them get educated and become a productive member of society?"

Teaching begins with students showing up at school, Kirk Englehardt, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said.

"The bottom line is that a teacher can't teach a student who is not in school," Englehardt said. "That is almost a no-brainer."

Making Adequate Yearly Progress includes a number of standards, including the 95 percent participation.

"That is why get so bent out of shape when the media labels a school a failing school," Englehardt said. "We had a school that had 94 percent take the test and not make AYP and the students did amazing on the test."

He said the Department of Education has been working with a Student Participation Task Force, a group of judges, law enforcement, educators and others, to crack down on truancy. The General Assembly is also working on legislation to "give teeth" to existing truancy laws.

The high school graduation test will be administered from March 22 to March 26 and the CRCT will be administered from April 14 to April 21.