The release of the complicated report cards for Georgia schools is imminent, and the results are important even if parents don’t always understand them.
The College and Career Ready Performance Index ranks schools from best to worst based on a host of measures, such as test pass rates, while also using more obscure indicators, such as one called "exceeding the bar."
Its results give administrators, teachers and parents consistent, if not always well understood, yearly guideposts to measure their school’s success or failure. And the failures could soon face serious consequences. The bottom five percent of lowest-performing schools will be subject to intervention by the state, which could cost teachers their jobs or see school administrations changed.
But just as the state hired a new turnaround officer to oversee the interventions, state Superintendent Richard Woods is pushing significant changes to the CCRPI to meet new federal education guidelines and to make it more understandable. The changes were necessary, but caught Woods between those who think test scores are critical to measure student progress, such as Gov. Nathan Deal, and others who say they are a flawed way to measure learning and that a focus on test results changes how classes are taught, with teachers "teaching to" what they think is on the tests.
Deal refused to sign off on Woods’ proposal, which is under review at the U.S. Department of Education. It is unclear how that might affect federal approval, or if Woods might have to go back to the drawing board.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has approved at least one other plan despite a governor's objection, also over testing. Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said his state's proposal failed to weed out a "proliferation" of tests.
Woods oversaw the rewriting of Georgia accountability measures in response to the federal government leaving behind the No Child Left Behind Act, under which the importance of test results was paramount. Under it, the proportion of students who had to achieve a passing score increased each year until it reached 100 percent. That proved unattainable for many, especially in neighborhoods with high poverty. The pressure was blamed for inciting the most notorious test-cheating scandal in U.S. history — in Atlanta Public Schools.
That system “had just become completely unworkable, so we needed a new accountability system,” said Dana Rickman, a researcher with the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a local think tank that analyzes school policy.
In developing the new report card, Georgia education officials worked with nearly 50 organizations and agencies and gathered input from thousands of Georgians. Officials heard how the relentless emphasis on tests had led schools to cut back on activities that did not directly contribute to higher scores, such as art, said Allison Timberlake, the accountability director for the state education department.
The new scoring system, which offers extra points for non-core course such as music or art, focuses “on what stakeholders feel is important to capture,” she said. Even so, she added, it still relies mainly on test scores.
And, the bottom 5 percent of schools could still be among those culled for state intervention no matter which measurement is used.
Surveys routinely show that the public both likes and dislikes tests. This summer, Education Next, affiliated with Harvard University, released a national poll showing nearly two thirds in favor of mandatory testing in math and reading. A couple of weeks later, Phi Delta Kappa International, the producer of a decades-old annual poll, reported that less than half of adults say performance on standardized tests, such as the Georgia Milestones, is a highly important indicator of school quality.
Stacey Gyorgyi, a mother in Gwinnett County who helps run a Facebook page called “Opt Out Georgia,” is in the anti-test camp. She said tests distort teaching priorities and are an unreliable measure of learning. She appreciates that Woods de-emphasized them, but feels he didn’t go far enough.
“I want the Milestones gone,” she said. “I think we need accountability. I don’t think that this is it.”
So far though, no one has come up with a better measure than testing, said Richard O. Welsh, an assistant professor of education at the University of Georgia.
“There are few feasible alternatives to test-based accountability,” said Welsh, who has studied the current and proposed school grading systems in Georgia and other states. He sees Georgia’s proposal as an improvement. Where No Child didn’t account for poverty and other disadvantages and blamed teachers for everything, the state report card adjusted. It gives schools credit if they show its students are learning faster, for instance, by increasing test scores more than similar students at other schools.
The first version of CCRPI was implemented for the 2011-12 school year. Georgia developed it in exchange for a waiver from No Child when the federal law was overdue for changes. Since then, Congress has swung away from tests results. It passed a reform bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in late 2015 with rare bipartisan support. It still mandates testing but lets states decide how to use the results.
This next version of Georgia’s report card is as good as or better than what other states are considering, Welsh said, and it can always be adjusted. “I think we continually inch toward a more perfect measure.”
1. Georgia has been using its education report card, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, since the 2011-12 school year.
2. It grades schools on a 100-point scale (with up to ten bonus point possible) using a host of measures, with test performance being most important.
3. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to overhaul their school accountability systems, and Georgia has reworked this report card, making it simpler with 37 “indicators” measured instead of the current 70.
4. Test results are still important, but they count for less in the overall score, due to new measures that award points for enrolling students in things like Advanced Placement courses or for providing art or music classes.
5. Under the current school report card, test achievement is based on the percentage of students who show “proficiency” by passing the test, but under the proposal schools get more points if students get higher scores, showing “content mastery.”