School testing overhaul legislation goes to the Georgia governor

Legislation that diminishes the role of state tests in public school classrooms passed through the Georgia General Assembly Thursday and now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

Senate Bill 364 reduces the amount of testing tied to teacher performance and reduces the weight of test results in teacher evaluations.

Student test “growth” — the change in scores over time — currently counts for at least half of each evaluation but that drops to 30 percent under the legislation, which also reduces the number of Georgia Milestones tests from 32 to 24.

Proponents say the changes would result in less exam preparation and rote learning, but critics say schools would find it harder to identify weak teachers.

State Superintendent Richard Woods said the reduction in the number of tests and their consequence for teachers are “common-sense moves toward allowing our teachers to be creative and teach rather than focus on a test.”

A version of the bill was adopted unanimously by the Senate in February. The House amended it then passed it unanimously and returned it to the Senate to approve the changes. The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, agreed to the changes and got a 47-2 vote of final approval Thursday.

It was backed by nearly every major education group in Georgia, including the state PTA with more than 200,000 members. “This bill will probably have more positive impact on education than any we’ve seen in quite a while,” Tippins said.

The bill brings significant change to Georgia's testing mandates, which stemmed in part from federal requirements. The national emphasis on tests was reduced in December, when Congress overhauled the No Child Left Behind Act, replacing it with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The old law, and related agreements between states and the U.S. Department of Education, required that tests be used as a major indicator of teacher performance and that teachers be held accountable for the results. ESSA hands to the states significant control over testing and the determination of how to use the results.

Here’s what the 11-page SB 364 does for Georgia’s public schools, including charter schools:

  • Sets student "growth" on state-mandated tests at 30 percent of each teacher evaluation. That's down from at least 50 percent, a level set by the Georgia General Assembly in 2013, in response to federal requirements. The rest of the evaluations are based on subjective measures, such as classroom observations by a school principal.
  • Introduces measures of "professional growth" to replace the 20 percent of test results removed from evaluations. The other half of evaluations come from classroom observations by school principals and other evaluators, as under current law.
  • Reduces the test-based element of evaluations for principals and assistant principals to 40 percent, down from 70 percent.
  • Reduces to 24 the number of state tests that a student must take. The legislation eliminates science and social studies Georgia Milestones tests in third, fourth, sixth and seventh grades. That's down from 32 mandated tests but still above the 17 required under the federal ESSA.
  • Adds "formative" tests in the first and second grades and a school "readiness assessment" for entering first graders. These would be used to see if youngsters are starting school on track but would not factor into teacher evaluations. Formative exams are given at intervals during a course, so teachers can use the results to tailor their approach with each student. The legislation also "strongly" encourages formative tests in reading and math through fifth grade to ensure mastery in reading by the end of third grade and mastery in math by the end of fifth grade.
  • Only counts test scores in teacher evaluations of students who attend at least 90 percent of the instructional days for that course, up from 65 percent.
  • Lets school districts negotiate with the Georgia Department of Education to replace the tests they currently use in subjects for which there are no state Milestones tests, such as art, music or physical education. Called Student Learning Objectives, those tests are designed locally by each school district, often by personnel with no professional test-design background. Teachers have criticized these "SLOs" as poorly-crafted and ineffective. The legislation is vague about what districts can substitute, saying they can develop a "student growth measure" that may use "other student growth indicators."
  • Reduces the number of times that evaluators must observe classrooms of experienced teachers with a history of strong performance.
  • Requires that tests occur "as close to the end of the school year or semester as possible" by the 2017-18 school year. Currently, year-end testing begins as early as April, leading to complaints that little occurs in the classroom in the weeks that follow until summer break. School districts are "strongly encouraged" to test the last week of the midyear semester and within the final two weeks of the end of the school year