Georgia to search for alternative to standardized state tests

Richard Woods is Georgia’s elected state school superintendent. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

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Richard Woods is Georgia’s elected state school superintendent. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Standardized state tests have long been the ruler used to rap the knuckles of teachers and principals whose students underperform in Georgia schools, but that could change under a proposal by state Superintendent Richard Woods.

In what could be read as a concession to his critics, the state’s elected school chief says he will convene a task force to look for measures that could replace the tests.

Woods came under sharp criticism from Gov. Nathan Deal over the state's education plan, which was required under the new Every Student Succeeds Act passed by Congress in 2015. Deal supports the use of testing but wanted a commitment to search for a new kind of test, one that doesn't come at the end of the school year when it's too late to correct course with a failing student.

Deal had numerous complaints that led him to withhold his signature from the plan. But Woods amended it to suit the governor on this testing issue, adding a commitment to participate in the federal government's Innovative Assessment Demonstration program before submitting the plan to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Sept. 18. Then, on Monday, Woods announced that he was assembling a task force to come up with recommendations.

He’s casting a wide net for ideas, inviting 33 panelists including representatives from school districts, a charter school, higher education, advocacy groups and state government.

The size of the group, and the fact that state school board members only learned about it through a press release Monday, led to criticism at the monthly state school board meeting Thursday.

“The bigger the committee, the more likely the outcome is status quo,” said Mike Royal, chairman of the school board, which is appointed by the governor. He said committees this large are “usually a CYA committee,” and said the board would be forming its own task force.

Given the controversy surrounding tests, Woods said he wanted input from a lot of people before making changes. He also vowed to pursue alternative testing even if Georgia isn’t selected for the demonstration project, which could include federal dollars. Woods also committed about $100,000 in state Department of Education dollars to a grant program for school districts that want to experiment with testing, and said he might ask lawmakers for more money.

(A spokeswoman for Woods said the department was planning to apply for the federal demonstration project before the criticism from Deal, but she acknowledged that wasn't expressed as strongly as it could have been in the draft of the plan that went to him.)

The task force would be implementing the will of the Georgia General Assembly, which this year passed Senate Bill 211. It calls for a "research based formative assessment with a summative component" — education jargon for more frequent tests, like quizzes, that could be rolled into a final grade at year's end. Among the criticisms of standardized tests is that they take time away from teaching while offering little useful feedback for teachers, coming as they do at the end of a course.

Woods’ deputy superintendent over testing, Melissa Fincher, sized up the challenge of finding an alternative tool that can be used both to inform teachers and hold them accountable.

“I do not anticipate that everybody will be thrilled with whatever the outcome is,” she said.