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Pharis has plan to deal with academic weaknesses

A recent analysis of math test data for students taking the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) in the fifth and eighth grade is prompting a revamping of promotion and retention procedures for fifth and eighth graders and the delivery model used for math remediation.
Student test data for those taking the math section of the CRCT in the fifth and eight grade reveals a very troubling pattern of failure when those students are tested three years later, according to Grady County School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis.
The analysis of mathematical test data indicate that a high percentage of fifth graders who failed the math CRCT in the fifth grade also fail the math CRCT when they reach the eighth grade. Likewise, the majority of students who fail the eighth grade math CRCT either drop out of school or do not pass the math portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test (GHSGT).
Test data shows that of the 37 students who failed the fifth grade math CRCT in 2007 and were tested again in 2010, only six passed and 31 failed – a pass rate of 19 percent. And for the eighth graders who took the math CRCT in 2007, and the GHSGT in 2010, three passed and 16 failed the math section – also accounting for a 19 percent pass rate (after rounding to nearest 100th).
It is important to note that the numbers reflect only those who were still enrolled in the system three years later and had not transferred or dropped out of school.
“Math is the primary instructional issue in this system. Cairo High School has math issues. The middle school has math issues, and even
some of the elementary schools struggle in math,” said the superintendent. “We are looking strongly at the idea of making changes in math first, and then in other academic areas. We are not going to move a child from the fifth grade to the sixth grade until the child has the necessary background to do sixth grade work. Through analysis of our own data, a very small percentage of those who fail the fifth grade math section on the CRCT pass eighth grade math on the CRCT.
“The same results are true for the eighth graders who fail the math, they do not pass the high school graduation test. If the child is not ready, he is not going to pass. We are setting them up to drop out of school. We are setting up the middle school and high school for failure by not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress,” Dr. Pharis said.
The new proposal states that students will complete on-grade-level mathematics requirements, based on the CRCT, before being placed in the sixth or ninth grade.
Pharis contends that a manageable amount of stress is not a bad thing, but emphasized that too much organizational change in one year will overwhelm teachers and students. Therefore, other areas of concern will be addressed at a later time.
“I realize we are accountable for results on the system, school, class and student level. How do we approach accountability? A high stress,
threatening school environment is not going to work. Some levels of stress are good and we all do our best work if we are a little stressed,” he noted.
Pharis believes continuing the same approach will yield similar results. Hence, he is proposing a plan that will offer additional instruction targeting the weak domains during the summer and regular school year. Promotion to the sixth and ninth grades will also correlate with the student’s mastery of the material in math.
The proposed promotion and retention procedures for students in the fifth and eighth grade, however, would not be initiated until the 2011-12 school year.
The superintendent says he is skeptical about the effectiveness of an after school program when students and teachers are tired and students are less apt to retain what is taught. “I don’t think there has been much impact on test results from our after school program,” he said.
The new instructional plan calls for an intense four to six week summer school program for students who failed the mathematics fourth or fifth, seventh or eight grade CRCT.
CRCT retests will be pushed back to late in the summer.
Fourth and seventh graders who do not pass the retest will have their grade placement and program of study determined by the promotion committee.
Fifth and eighth graders who do not pass the retest in the summer could go to the middle school and high school and take on grade level math (sixth or ninth), but would retain their fifth and eighth grade status until passing the test. In addition to receiving on-grade-level instruction, these students would also have a period each day for instruction focused on the domains they failed on the fifth or eighth grade tests.
When students demonstrate competency of those domains (based on benchmarks) and are also on track on the grade level course (6th or 9th) by the end of the first semester, they would be promoted to the next grade.
“We are setting these students up for failure when we place them in the next grade without the necessary background knowledge to be successful,“ said Superintendent Pharis. “We have a moral responsibility to see that our students pass these tests, whether it is the Georgia High School Graduation Test or the CRCT. I am committed to that.
“Without a passing score on the graduation test, the child will not graduate. Without a passing score or excellent score on the SAT, the student will not get into college.”
He is optimistic that by changing the delivery model of instruction to summer and increasing instructional time on specific domains of weakness during the school day, students will have the tools they need to be successful on the test.
“I have changed my approach and, overall, it has been received well. The principals and I talk a lot. We don’t always agree. We argue, fuss, and fight, but in the end we come together. I have not been focused on test scores as much as I should have been. I was more focused on student achievement.
“We don’t mandate. We don’t threaten. I am sold on the idea we are going to improve and we will do it the right way. If not, there will be
a lot of disappointed people next spring if we don’t see some significant changes.
“Student achievement will improve this year. We live in a community where our demographics put us in the middle of Georgia counties. We firmly believe we have the talent and ability in our school staffs that we will not settle to be average,” Pharis said.
“Am I going out on a limb?” he asked. “Yes. But we are out on it all together.”

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