Overhaul of testing in Georgia schools gets a hearing

A long-awaited overhaul of school testing and the use of the results to evaluate teachers in Georgia schools got a full hearing Wednesday, as lawmakers in a key committee prepare for a vote.

Senate Bill 364, unanimously passed the Georgia Senate last month, but lost momentum in the House, where the Education committee amended it Tuesday.

A broad coalition of teachers, parents and school leaders showed up in support of the original bill at Wednesday’s hearing. Some two dozen testified. They liked some of the changes, and lawmakers promised to work together to merge the two versions in time for passage by the end of this legislative session on March 24.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, the author of SB 364, was optimistic after the hearing. Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, the chair of the committee, said he expects a consensus version by Thursday, in time for an early morning vote Friday.

Nearly all those who testified said Georgia went too far with its fervor for testing, and for holding teachers accountable for student test performance. Current state law requires student test results to count for at least half of each teacher’s evaluation. Tippins’ bill cuts that to 30 percent.

Michele Willis, a teacher and mother in Cobb County, said tests don’t measure all the work teachers do for their students. It is “appalling” to her to think that her son could harm a teacher’s career by failing to pay attention on a test.

A handful of speakers defended using tests to evaluate teachers, including Michael O’Sullivan, of Students First, a national group that pushes for school choice and better public schools. He said research supports using test results for a third to half of a teacher’s evaluation.

Many disagree about the research, saying the number should be even lower than 30 percent. Whatever the number, the political pressure to relieve teachers is mounting as every major education-related group in the state, from the Georgia PTA to organizations for teachers, superintendents, principals and school board members, throws its support behind the changes proposed by SB 364. The bill also reduces the weight of tests in evaluations of principals and other school leaders.

Many said educators, weary of the relentless focus on tests, are fleeing the profession. Fewer and fewer college students are considering the field.

“We have a massive, massive teacher and leader shortage in the United States,” Fulton County school board member Katie Reeves testified. “It’s going to get worse.”