ATLANTA — Georgia students struggled with tougher new statewide tests, with thousands of eighth graders headed to summer school to see if they can boost their scores enough to advance to high school, according to data released by the state Department of Education on Monday.

State Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox called some of the results “hard to take.”

But she said the lackluster results were inevitable as the state implements a new curriculum and more challenging tests.

“This year is a turning point for us,” Cox said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Cox said one clear signal sent by the tests is that educators need to place a more intense focus on the middle grades, especially in math and science.

Only 63 percent of seventh graders and 61 percent of sixth graders passed the new science test. In math, just 62 percent of sixth graders passed. In seventh grade, math performance improved as 81 percent of students achieving a passing grade.

For some subjects and grades, this is the first year for tougher new Criterion Referenced Competency Tests. Cox said the 19 new tests required a broader understanding of the subject matter and students had to get more questions right to pass. Critics had said some of the old CRCT tests were too easy.

Then-candidate Sonny Perdue made the state’s poor test scores a key issue in his defeat of Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002. The Republican has made education a centerpiece of his re-election bid, pushing proposals this year to lower class size and boost teacher pay.

The test scores fast became a campaign issue on Monday as one of Perdue’s would-be Democratic challengers, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, blamed the scores on cuts he said the governor has made to education funding.

“This is what happens when you cut schools by more than a billion dollars and you do nothing about overcrowded classes: our children suffer and test scores go down,” Taylor spokesman Rick Dent said.

Perdue campaign spokesman Derrick Dickey responded that “Democrats had 135 years to fix education in Georgia and they failed.” He accused Taylor of “throwing money at the problem.”

A spokesman for Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor and is no relation to the schools superintendent, called the scores disappointing.

“We need a governor with big ideas for education and a record of bringing change to state government,” said Cox spokesman Peter Jackson. “That’s why this Cathy Cox has outlined a comprehensive education agenda that will finally give our children the opportunity to succeed and a path from high school to further education and a career.”

Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick said results from the new tests created a “rigorous new baseline” allowing Georgia students to go up against the best students from around the world.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, praised the Perdue administration for raising the bar.

“We didn’t expect much and we didn’t get much,” Johnson said.

For eighth-graders the stakes on the test are particularly high. Students must pass the math and reading portions to be promoted to the next grade.

Seventy-seven percent of eighth graders passed the math portion of the test and 89 percent passed the reading section, according to the state Department of Education.

But Cox said Monday that failing the test would not automatically mean a student must repeat the eighth grade. Instead, those students will receive remedial help in the coming weeks and attend summer school. Students able to pass a retest will be promoted. For those who fail again, a conference of the teacher, principal and parent will determine whether the student should advance or not, Cox said.

Cox allowed that summer school enrollment was almost certain to rise this summer as a result of the new tests. She said school districts were equipped to handle it.

There were a few bright spots. On the English portion of the exam, the percentage of eighth graders who passed rose from 80 percent in 2005 to 87 percent in 2006. For sixth graders that figure rose from 76 percent to 84 percent. The improvement came even though both were exams that had been revamped to make them more challenging.

In most of those subjects where the curriculum and tests remained the same, the percentage of students who passed inched up slightly.

For the 19 new tests, the state did not provide results for prior years, saying the new tests made it unfair to compare the results. The results were obtained by looking at last year’s data on the Department of Education’s web site.

The state-mandated CRCT tests are used to fulfill testing requirements of the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” program.

Scores for individual districts were not made available Monday. Officials offered no timetable for their release.

Jeff Hubbard, president elect for the Georgia Association of Educators, called the results mixed.

“I think we are headed in the right direction,” Hubbard said. “But change takes time.”

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On The Net:

Georgia Department of Education: http://public.doe.k12.ga.us/

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