Georgia will decide school testing under changed federal law

With the stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama will end an era of high-stakes school testing mandated by Washington, appeasing parents, teachers and educational leaders who bemoaned a fearful “teach to the test” environment it created in some schools.

When he signs the Every Student Succeeds Act, the oft-criticized annual tests will not vanish, but states will no longer be required to impose heavy sanctions on schools with poor scores.

“You still have testing but it reduces the mandate and gives the local boards of education and states the ability to let parents opt out,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who helped write the legislation. Congress passed it by overwhelming, bipartisan margins in both chambers, and the White House said Obama would sign it Thursday morning.

Georgia already makes its school districts give more tests than the federal government requires, and this legislation won’t force states to reduce their own mandates, said Isakson, who also helped write the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that this law replaces. The new law “takes away the argument that the federal government is making the states do it and puts it totally in the hands of the states,” he said.

It is seen as a retreat from federal school oversight that grew out of the civil rights movement, yet it is being hailed as a success by the Obama administration and even, more guardedly, by civil rights proponents. They feared the return of an era when schools were given a pass for poor performance among high-poverty and minority populations, but said they lobbied successfully to retain safeguards.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that, unlike the “top-down, one-size fits all approach” of the past, the new law lets states “find the best local solutions” to improve struggling schools and requires progress reports to the federal government.

The No Child law threatened to restructure schools that didn’t measure up, and it required reports on the academic performance of demographic groups, becoming known derisively as the “test-and-punish” law.

The tests created a pressure cooker environment in some schools, especially those with lots of impoverished students. Educators involved in the worst cheating scandal in the nation, here in Atlanta, blamed pressure to raise test scores when they testified in the trial that ended earlier this year, though the targets set by Atlanta Public Schools were often higher than those required by Washington.

Teachers’ advocates hailed the Senate’s 85-12 vote Wednesday and the House’s vote the week before. Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Educators Association, called it “a victory for every child in Georgia.” Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the national group, warned states not to implement or continue policies that are as punitive as the federal mandates that drew a backlash from teachers and parents. What happened in Congress is “a cautionary tale now for the state legislatures,” she said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Nathan Deal said recently that he’s ready to ask lawmakers to tie teacher pay to performance using both an “objective assessment” and “subjective” measures. He didn’t say whether that means using high-stakes tests, but the state is poised to do just that, with an evaluation system based on test scores and classroom observations by supervisors.

Georgia school leaders said some testing is necessary but that they want less of it and less emphasis on the results in teacher reviews.

Julia Bernath, a member of the Fulton County school board, said tests should be used to assess students’ progress while teachers should be judged on their ability to prepare them for the next grade.

“Absolutely reduce the amount of testing,” she said. Will Wade, a Dawson County school board member and president-elect of the state school boards association, said tests should count for maybe a fifth of teachers’ evaluations, instead of half as is currently planned. Philip Lanoue, superintendent of the Clarke County School District in Athens and the national superintendent of the year, said standardized tests are necessary but lawmakers should trust school districts to determine how many and how to use them.

“I think the state needs to drastically cut back and only do what the federal government requires,” he said. “The biggest question is what our state is going to do.”

The new law continues the federal mandate that students be tested in math and reading in grades three through eight, plus once in high school. Georgia requires more testing in other subjects. State lawmakers, who convene for the next legislative session in January, haven’t charted a course yet.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, chairman of the state senate’s Education and Youth Committee, said tests are necessary to determine how students are doing, but he also said Georgia students spend too much time taking them. He said more efficiency could be the path forward: getting more information from each test while reducing the total number.

“If you streamline the design you could cut down the number of times that a student has to sit down and take a test,” said Tippins, R-Marietta. He said there’s a good argument for maintaining tests in teacher evaluations, since strong results could protect teachers against poor evaluations by bosses influenced by personal conflict.

Before Tippins commits to any changes, he wants to see how federal rule makers interpret the new legislation and how Deal reacts.

State Superintendent Richard Woods said Georgia needs to strike a balance with testing. He has called for a survey of state and local tests to ferret out “unnecessary” exams and “provide relief from over-testing and over-burdensome accountability.”

There are defenders of high-stakes testing, including the national group Students First, a nonprofit organization that contends America is in an educational crisis. Tests are a key accountability tool, said the group’s Georgia director, Michael O’Sullivan. He said Georgia’s new set of tests, the Milestones, give a better picture of student ability than those they replaced, and said the way the state now tracks each student’s scores over time and compares the change against those of similar students is a fairer method of measuring the influence of each teacher.

“It’s about student growth. It’s about being able to more accurately identify teachers who have moved students along,” O’Sullivan said.

Despite her criticism of testing, Bernath, the Fulton school board member, said the No Child law was a positive force because it exposed how some groups were underserved, especially impoverished children and minorities.

“What No Child Left Behind did was force districts to find those children who weren’t being served and give them the education they needed,” she said.

Isakson said it was a good law that ultimately went too far. It mandated ever-increasing levels of performance until the bar was set impossibly high. Then, Congress failed to reauthorize it and the mandates stayed in place for nearly a decade. He blames the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal mainly on immoral educators and a lack of school district leadership, but said the punitive federal law “may have contributed to the APS problem.”

A coalition of civil rights organizations lobbied him and other members of Congress to maintain federal oversight over school quality in this new 1,000-plus page law.

“The final product is not everything that we wanted it to be,” said Liz King, the education policy director for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which coordinated the effort. Her group takes solace that the federal government maintains an oversight role and that the law compels states to report how much money is spent per child in each school, a new requirement that she said will expose inequities.

“More control and authority is ceded than we would have liked,” King said, “but much less than we had feared would happen.”

Get Schooled on the legislation here.

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