Failure rate "huge problem"

Black and Hispanic students failed the Georgia's mandated graduation exam this year at higher rates than whites or Asians, a gap in achievement that the state's education superintendent called a "huge problem."

"We're working every single day here in Georgia to make up for a long history of educating some well and others not so well," Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox said.

In order to graduate, students must pass a standardized exam in English, math, social studies and science. They receive four chances to pass the assessment. If they flunk just one section, they can't earn a high school diploma without winning an appeal from the state Board of Education.

More than 4,600 high school seniors last year left without a degree because they could not pass the test.

Cox said the new public school curriculum, designed to be more challenging academically, and other state programs to improve teaching or provide extra attention to students having difficulty in school should result in better test scores.

Most of Georgia's public school students passed the exam and in the past parents and sometimes students have criticized the graduation exam as too easy. But some experts are concerned that thousands of students flunk the basic skills assessment yearly.

The science portion of the test illustrated the widest gap between whites and minorities - 80 percent of whites passed, nearly 30 percentage points higher than the 51 percent of blacks who passed.

Another gap revealed itself with the English portion of the exam, which showed that while 98 percent of whites passed, 88 percent of Hispanics passed.

"All of us need to think outside the box to help students where there is a gap," said Holly Robinson, senior vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta organization that has been working for more public school innovation. "There clearly is a gap ... and we don't want that."

Yet the achievement gaps are narrowing, officials said. Blacks and Hispanics have lifted passing rates from 41 percent to 51 percent and 54 percent, respectively, in just two years.

Cox said each state has a problem with the achievement gap but she believes in the "No Child Left Behind" goal of having all students at grade level by 2014.

"I'm doing all I can in these next four years" to close the gap by 2014, she said.

Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com