The story behind an unexpected Georgia anti-testing bill

Feb. 16, 2016, Atlanta -- Parents and teachers with the group TRAGIC rally across the street from the Gold Dome. TY TAGAMI/AJC
Feb. 16, 2016, Atlanta -- Parents and teachers with the group TRAGIC rally across the street from the Gold Dome. TY TAGAMI/AJC

Credit: Ty Tagami

Credit: Ty Tagami

During the early weeks of this legislative session, there was a persistent rumor under the Gold Dome that something was going to fill the political void left by Gov. Nathan Deal.

When he backed off his education initiatives, there was talk of legislation that would target achievement tests and their use in teacher evaluations.

This talk went on for a while, until finally last week something unexpected happened: not one, but two competing bills popped up within a day of each other in the Senate. The chairman of the committee that handles school legislation had been hinting he had something coming. But by the time Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, filed Senate Bill 364, someone else had beat him to it.

The day before he acted, Tippins' Republican colleague, William T. Ligon, Jr., dropped Senate Bill 355 into the "hopper" in the Secretary of the Senate's office. Ligon is not on Tippins' Education and Youth committee, and neither were the co-signers on his bill. So it was something of a surprise to lobbyists and other Capitol watchers.

Where did it come from, they wondered.

Stacey Gyorgyi and Meg Norris can answer that. I bumped into them while covering a rally at the Capitol this week, and they shared a story a year in the making.

Gyorgyi's children attend school in Gwinnett County, where the high-pressure exams were causing distress. They were chewing their finger nails and pulling out their eyelashes as the Milestones tests loomed last spring.

Gyorgyi had read about the "opt-out" movement in New York, and wondered why she hadn't heard of one here. After some searching online, she found Norris, a former English teacher from Hall County who said she quit because of the effect of the tests on her students. She founded Opt Out Georgia on Facebook. They traded emails and phone calls and before long Gyorgyi was welcomed into the inner circle, traveling around the state to living rooms and conventions to encourage parents to opt their children out of the tests.

Then, in December, with the legislative session approaching, they contacted Ligon. Norris had worked with him during a prior session, on legislation against the Common Core standards.

After several tries, they coordinated calendars and met at a Roswell restaurant. Over three hours, the activists shared a binder full of anecdotes from parents about the effect of the tests on their children.

"Ligon's face lit up," Gyorgyi said. "He said 'student-teacher protection act. That's what we need to call it.'"

Ligon, who is in the Republican Senate leadership as majority caucus chairman, confirmed their account, but added a bit. "We were going to do something," he said, "but they provided us with a lot of help and saved us a lot of time."

Tippins, as chairman of the Senate Education and Youth committee, will influence any testing legislation that emerges from his side of the General Assembly. His bill is similar to Ligon's. Both reduce the weight of tests in teacher evaluations, but by different degrees. Tippins would drop them from half of each job review, to 30 percent in 178 of Georgia's 180 school districts (that's a long story), while Ligon pushes them down to 10 percent in all 180. Both don't count scores of chronically absent students, but Ligon's definition is more liberal: his bill won't count students who miss 10 days of school each year (typically 180 days long), while Tippins' only skips students who miss at least a fifth of a school year.

There is at least one major difference: Ligon creates an opt-out provision that prohibits punishment for a student who skips a test. He said he's willing to merge some elements of his bill, if Tippins is willing.

Gyorgyi, who spent countless late nights on the research behind the legislation, is willing to go only so far, though.

"The parent refusal is not something we're going to budge on," she said.

Norris agrees. "When you have a child who is mentally at the breaking point and you can't call up and say 'my child doesn't want to do that' and the school says 'you have to,' it's criminal," she said.

Read more about the two bills

I invited Gyorgyi and Norris to write a column for this blog. Gyorgyi's schedule didn't permit, so she deferred to Norris, who took me up on it. This is from her:

Senate Bill 355, the Student/Teacher Protection Act, was born of years of frustration and activism. One teacher and one mom who had had enough joined forces to write SB 355. Supporting this effort are other parents who want to see their children and teachers protected. I am that teacher.

After seeing the effects of testing and bad standards on my students and their learning environment, I left the classroom to give students a voice.  After two years and over 200 speeches given throughout the Southeast, I met a mom who was just as angry and just as loud.  Together we turned to Senator William Ligon and Representative David Stover for help. Both men are champions for education in Georgia. They understand our concerns and see the toxic environments being created in Georgia’s classrooms.  When testing is “high stakes” anxiety rapidly becomes damaging to young brains. High stakes means teacher jobs, promotions, and pay are at risk when students do poorly on the test. For students, high stakes mean they may not be promoted to the next grade based on results from one test.

When testing is truly about the children and used as a measurement tool for academic progress, it can be positive. When a test is statistically valid and reliable, research shows it can reveal the 7-14% influence a teacher has over students’ test outcomes.  This is not what the Georgia Milestones test does for education.

The Georgia Milestones are neither valid nor reliable, yet they are being counted as 50% of a teacher’s evaluation. An invalid and unreliable test is similar to the doctor checking a patient’s temperature with a non-calibrated thermometer.  This should make Georgia taxpayers question why tax dollars are being spent on this tool.

In addition to an invalid and unreliable test, the Georgia Milestones test is causing damage to Georgia’s students. The numbers of students being seen by medical and psychological practitioners for anxiety related illnesses and behaviors have exploded. This anxiety has been linked back to the pressure schools are putting on children to pass the Georgia Milestones.

If similar anxiety related issues were originating from a child’s home, these children would be referred to another agency such as the Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS). DFACS would then be required to investigate. If one state agency recognizes these complaints, it is curious why another state agency, such as the school, will not. Anxiety related problems are indeed resulting from the pressure students and teachers feel due to the high stakes nature of these tests. It is for that reason the Georgia legislature needs to enact law to ensure healthy learning environments.

Parents are the resident experts of their own children, and they must be supported in the decision to remove their children from toxic, anxiety inducing environments, including the testing environment, when it becomes overwhelming to the child.

Offering this parental assurance would align with reasons many parents vote for local and parental control of education.  The opportunity to refuse these tests is critical as parents need to defend our children from further federal encroachment into our schools.  It is the duty of our state elected officials to protect the rights of students and parents, not their reelection funds. Georgia’s legislators should pave the path for teaching and learning to again be a joy to Georgia’s teachers and students.

Protecting teachers and students does not fit Governor Deal’s plan for privatizing education.  Efforts to protect teachers and students could fall prey to the same obstructionists who have torn apart the Atlanta Public Schools and have created the Opportunity School District.  Politicians in favor of the Opportunity School District do not protect our children or make education better for all.  They desire money rather than a foundational public education for all of Georgia’s students.

I encourage parents to protect their students from toxic testing by exercising their parental rights and refusing Milestones tests this spring.  Call your representatives and demand protection of parental rights as well as valid and reliable tests for measuring true academic progress. Testing is not the enemy.  The enemies are bad testing, toxic testing, and invalid testing.  Teachers are not “driving instruction” with these tests.  Politicians are driving out good teachers and driving our kids to hate school.

Meg Norris submitted this bio: Meg Norris is a doctoral candidate in education and is a certified Georgia teacher.  She founded Opt Out Georgia where she and an amazing team of moms help parents interested in exercising their parental rights to refuse test participation.

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