ATLANTA - The number of Georgia schools meeting federal benchmarks plummeted this year as the bar for reaching those standards was raised, state data released Thursday show.
Just 63 percent of schools made adequate yearly progress, compared to 71 percent last year, according to Georgia Department of Education data. Those numbers do not include Atlanta schools data because Georgia officials are trying to determine how widespread cheating revealed in a state investigation earlier this month will affect the district's federal standing.
The number of schools in "needs improvement" - meaning they didn't meet federal benchmarks for at least two consecutive years - rose from 305 to 379, or about 17 percent of all schools. This year just 16 schools emerged from that status after meeting targets for two years in a row.
The data is part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which aims to have all children on grade level in math and reading by 2014. Each state set what is considered proficient and how much schools must improve each year, but many left the biggest leaps for the final years and hoped the law would be changed before then.
"Every state is facing this," said Georgia schools Superintendent John Barge. "The bottom line is, in the realities of 2014, I don't think anybody thinks we'll get there."
Schools that repeatedly fail to meet benchmarks face sanctions, such as having to offer tutoring and allow students to transfer to higher performing schools in the same district. Some schools must fire teachers, replace their principal or shut down if they spend multiple years on the "needs improvement" list.
Federal lawmakers say the Bush-era law is broken and long overdue for an overhaul, though little has been done to address that in Congress. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called for the law to be rewritten by the fall, but federal lawmakers say that won't happen.
"The momentum of improvement is certainly not continuing, and yet, I think the schools and teachers are working harder than ever," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents more than 80,000 educators in the state. "You make people work harder and harder in goals that are increasingly difficult to achieve; meanwhile you're taking funding out from under them year by year by year. That's a triple whammy."
For Georgia middle schools, 56 percent met standards this year, compared to last year's 67 percent. Just 29 percent of high schools passed muster, compared to 33 percent last year.
Elementary schools slipped from 84 percent last year to 75 percent. Those numbers likely will increase at the end of the summer after students who didn't pass their Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests retake exams.
AYP is calculated based on test participation, academic achievement, graduation rate and other statistics. But every few years, the percentage of students who must pass state tests increases.
For example, 75.7 percent of third- through eighth-grade students had to pass the math test this year, compared with 67.6 percent last year. Eighty percent of those students had to pass the English language arts test, compared to 73.3 percent last year.
And the state's graduation rate requirement went up from 80 percent to 85 percent, which was not met. Just 79.5 percent of high school students got diplomas this year, a number that could rise after summer school ends.
In Atlanta, a state investigation released July 5 found widespread cheating in nearly half of the district's 100 schools dating as far back as 2001. In all, 178 educators are accused of changing answers on students' tests, giving students answers or ordering colleagues to cheat in an effort to inflate students' scores.
The state could throw out test results for the 44 schools involved for multiple years and cancel out the district's "adequate yearly progress" standing for those years. If so, the schools could owe the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding received for high test scores.
Barge said the Atlanta scandal highlights the need for states to move away from relying on a single test score to determine how a school is performing. The state is developing a new way to calculate AYP that includes student growth, Advanced Placement scores, SAT scores and attendance.
He plans to ask the U.S. Department of Education in September for a waiver to use the new system.
"If you look at just a single test you're going to see people whose backs are pushed against a wall," Barge said. "It's so important we look at all the good work a school is doing."