By Lauren Leathers
Under the watchful eye of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, Atlanta Public School’s continuous improvement in Georgia Milestone test scores and graduation rates are a sign the district’s “Journey of Transformation” is working. This year, APS achieved its highest ever rates of proficiency on the Milestone tests since first implemented by the state in 2015.
However, Carstarphen said there is still work to be done. The graduation rate for 2018 was 79.9 percent, an all-time high, but still below the state average of 81.6 percent and other local school districts’ rates. Additionally, the Milestone exams, which are given at the end of each school year to measure how well students have learned the skills outlined in state-adopted content standards in English, math, science and social studies, show progress, but Carstarphen said they do not provide an accurate examination of a child’s growth as a whole.
“In my professional career, we’ve been raised in our national conscious around high-stakes accountability,” she said. “That’s proven to be good for some, but what we’ve learned over time is that these assessments are one measure of what a child has learned, but they don’t tell the whole story.”
Since APS’ cheating scandal in 2009, in which 3,728 APS students were potentially impacted by teacher and administrators correcting answers on the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT), Carstarphen has made strides to redeem the district. She’s put safeguards into place to ensure a scandal of this capacity never happens again including ethics training, lowering the high-stakes testing environment and creating an accountability department.
“There’s a component of this work that is about making sure that we are holding people accountable to a more balanced scorecard around our work,” she said. “Yes, it’s about academics, but it’s also about the culture of the school, leadership and professional development. We just want to put together a bigger package that isn’t unnaturally focused on the outcome of test scores at one time in any given year.”
Carstarphen said the district provides tutoring and wraparound services for student victims of the cheating scandal called Target 2021, which aids support with individual learning plans and post-secondary options.
According to Carstarphen, research studies show that Atlanta is the most unequal city in the United States when it comes to income disparity. She says many schools in APS are incredibly poor and have been trapped in intergenerational poverty for decades.
“In my work, I feel like we are lightyears away from lifting barriers of intergenerational poverty for kids in Atlanta,” she said. “We’ve had a balanced budget the last five years and we have one for this year too. We want to be able to address that and we believe the resources for those schools need to be increased. While we have access and collectible digest covers that, we’ve found there is a challenge in our ability to control how much of that digest comes to APS.”
After having her contract extended three times, Carstarphen is nearing her sixth year as superintendent. That being said, her five year plan coming to an end. In the next year, she plans to focus more on equity and protecting that collectible digest.
“I’ve made it clear to the community that I want to stay in APS,” she said. “ I believe in the work we are doing and we haven’t fully finished the job that I was recruited to do. Atlanta is still recovering from the cheating scandal – it takes a longer time to turn around a district with these kind of deep issues from broken infrastructure to corruption. We talk a lot about intergenerational poverty too, but when it comes to what the system has to overcome, the struggle is real.”