Families Can Handle the Truth – If They Know It

Earlier this year, Learning Heroes, a national organization focused on parent-teacher relationships released stunning data. 

Across the country, their research found that 90 percent of parents believe their children are reading and doing math at or above grade level. That would be great – if it was true. In reality, 26 percent of eighth-graders are proficient or above in math, and 31 percent are proficient or above in reading and writing. 

This disconnect is present in Georgia, too. Statewide, most students are not reading, writing, or doing math at grade level. We believe that if parents knew the reality of their children’s academic performance, they’d be asking questions, demanding support, and calling for change. 

The fact of the matter is that schools and districts are not sharing hard truths about how much – or how little – children are learning. Sometimes, we’ve been guilty of not being forthright enough, too.

We’ve been thinking a lot about this topic since 2023 Georgia Milestones state test scores came out this summer. The results are a mixed bag. Whether you’re looking for good news or bad news, there’s something in the results for you. But only sharing one side without the other is disingenuous. Parents deserve to know the full truth, now more than ever. 

Students across the country did not learn as much in the two years following COVID-19 school closures. In response, the federal government devoted an unprecedented amount of federal funding to do something about it. Overall, the government is spending nearly $190 billion nationwide, including just over $200 million for Atlanta Public Schools (APS).

To what extent schools’ use of those funds is helping students to get back on track is vitally important information for parents – and taxpayers – to know. 

The latest state test results show that students at traditional APS district schools held their own, and then some. Whereas the percentage of students in grades 3-8 who are proficient or above in math fell 5.8 points statewide between 2019 and 2023, it only fell 4.7 points in these APS-led neighborhood schools. That’s a notable difference, significant both statistically and historically – APS is not always a step ahead of the state.

Yet in absolute terms, students in these schools – like students in most schools – are struggling. Even though their scores fell less than students statewide, they still fell, and they’re still far too  low. In this group of schools that performed better than others across the state, just 29.8 percent of students are proficient or above in math. In reading and writing, it’s 33.8 percent.

This fact bears repeating. Even among the APS schools that did better – with students’ performance not slipping as much during the pandemic – only about one in three students can do math, reading, or writing on grade level.

What’s more, gaps persist among students from different economic backgrounds. For the seven schools in this group where less than 10 percent of students qualify as low-income, the average scale score in math actually increased from 2019 to 2023. For the 13 schools in this group where more than 70 percent of students qualify as income, the average scale score in math fell by 8.3 points. 

All of these factors fed our surprise when the APS press release on the state test scores came out this summer with a headline that read, in part, “Students Show Growth, Gains.” 

It’s true that students performed slightly better in the 2022-23 school year than they did during the 2021-22 school year. It’s also true that the 2021-22 school year was still significantly impacted by the pandemic, creating an apples-to-oranges comparison. We believe the fairer point of reference for the 2023 scores is 2019, before the pandemic. By that measure, the 2023 scores don’t look nearly so positive. 

This was particularly the case at schools that predominantly teach the most underserved students. At Hollis Innovation Academy, for instance, a K-8 traditional district school where nearly all students come from low-income homes, the percentage of students proficient or above in math fell from 19.6 in 2019 to just 3.6 in 2023.

Whereas charter schools have in the past been a bright spot among city students, particularly students who live in poverty, this trend did not hold true for all APS charters this year or last year.

What we know is that from between 2019 and 2023, the scores for students at two of our historically higher performing APS charter networks, Kindezi Schools and KIPP Metro Atlanta, dropped dramatically. At Kindezi, the students started and ended higher but fell further. In math, the percentage of students on grade level or above fell from 41.7 to 15.8. At KIPP, the percentage of students at grade level or above fell from 37.5 to 13.7 in math. 

It’s important to not paint with too broad a brush and lump all charter schools, or all traditional district schools, together. 

For example, Ethos Classical Charter School is a newer school, one whose application was denied twice by APS before being approved by the state. It doesn’t have test scores from 2019. But while serving a similar population of students to Kindezi and KIPP schools, Ethos significantly outpaced its peers. Their results are between 9 and 17 points higher than the APS averages, with 42 percent of students at or above grade level in reading and writing and 46 percent proficient or above in math. 

At the same time, Perkerson Elementary, a traditional district school led by APS, improved from 2019 to 2023. In reading and writing, the percentage of students achieving at grade level more than doubled from 12.4 to 26.2 In math, the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency or higher increased from 17.7 to 20.1. 

Now, our focus is on determining what we can learn from these bright spots and how we – as an education-focused nonprofit, as well as the school district and its charter partners – will respond to these challenges. Parents have a right to know how their children are progressing. Residents deserve to know about the district’s pandemic recovery plan and what these scores say about how APS is spending that $200 million. Voters must demand to know what the 10 candidates running for the five open Board seats will do differently and how the district will hold itself accountable to its own Goals & Guardrails policy to drive urgent change for students and schools. 

We’re left with questions. Will we interrogate the underlying reasons for this performance? Will we expand the freedom and flexibility that schools need to adjust, be innovative, and make changes to best meet the needs of their community? Will we show up to vote in November? 

This is no time for perky press releases or blog posts. Students are struggling, and schools owe parents and voters a bold plan for how they will bring dramatic improvement to all of our city’s public schools. 


By Ed Chang, executive director, redefinED atlanta, and Angira Sceusi, vice president-chief of staff, redefinED atlanta