Gov. Brian Kemp greets state school Superintendent Richard Woods on Tuesday, when he announced legislation Tuesday to “reduce high-stakes K-12 testing in Georgia.” Kemp and Woods traveled the state over the summer talking with teachers and parents about the number of tests Georgia’s students take each year, which they say is too many. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Kemp wants fewer tests, especially in high school

In a move that will likely please many teachers and students, Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday announced he will back legislation that reduces the number of high-stakes tests in schools.

Kemp traveled the state last year and heard from school leaders, parents and teachers who complained about how tests had come to dominate classroom time. “Today, we’re sending a clear message: We hear you and we’ve got your back,” he said in a brief speech in his office. “Georgia simply tests too much.”

He was flanked by state school Superintendent Richard Woods, along with Republican and Democratic lawmakers from both the state House and the Senate, suggesting significant backing during this legislative session. Woods, who toured the state with Kemp, said he believes teachers will prepare students well without the oversight that tests provide. “I put my faith in the teachers of this state,” he said.

Kemp has been an advocate for the state’s teachers, too, giving them a $3,000 pay raise last year and putting another $2,000 raise in his latest budget proposal.

The Georgia General Assembly had already reduced the number of mandatory standardized tests from 32 to 24 in 2016. But that is still above the 17 required by federal law.

The new legislation, coming through the Senate, calls for the elimination of five of those seven extra tests: one in fifth grade and the rest in high school.

Advocacy groups for teachers and school administrators helped draft the legislation. That doesn’t mean all teachers support it.

Monica Hardy, an elementary school teacher in Wilkes County, thinks too much time is consumed by testing in elementary school. But she still thinks testing is necessary because subjects that aren’t tested tend to get “pushed to the wayside.”

Instead of fewer tests, Hardy, who teaches fourth and fifth grades, wants them to be shorter. That’s what she told Kemp last fall at his teacher listening session in Gwinnett County. She spoke of students who struggled to finish three-hour tests, some moved to tears and questioning their own intelligence when they couldn’t.

Kemp’s proposal would shorten the tests somewhat by removing questions used to gauge how students compare against peers nationwide, but Hardy wonders whether that is enough.

“It’s only something like 10 questions, but it’s still better than nothing,” she said.

The legislation would eliminate the fifth grade social studies test and a high school English, math, science and social studies test. (There are currently two in each area, and the Georgia Board of Education would select which to cut.)

That would move Georgia into the middle of the pack for the number of tests, said Adam Tyner, associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

Georgia has more high school tests than many and that’s a good thing, said Tyner, who has co-authored research that found states with more high school tests had better outcomes on measures such as graduation rates.

While elementary students may not be suited to the high-stakes nature of these tests, he said, high school students should be. “People who are concerned about over-testing have some legitimate points, but those points are most valid in elementary school,” he said.

Testing was popular two decades ago when President George W. Bush ushered in the No Child Left Behind era that was going to hold schools accountable to ever higher standards. The reality in the classroom, where teachers felt so much pressure to do well that they focused on test preparation, angered many parents, though.

That gave rise to movements like Opt Out Georgia, an 8,000-member group that wants an end to testing.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Meg Norris, the former public school teacher who founded the group. Kemp’s legislation is a great first step, she said, adding that high school students suffer consequences from testing.

“I’ve talked to hundreds of parents whose kids lost scholarships because tests destroyed their grade-point average,” she said.

The high school tests currently count for a fifth of students’ course grades. The legislation would not only cut in half the tests but also empower the state education board to decide whether the tests should affect grades.

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