Seeing momentum, teachers push to roll back testing

Teachers expressed relief when Gov. Nathan Deal delayed plans to base their pay on merit, and they are now hoping they have the momentum to reduce or eliminate the role of student test scores on their job evaluations.

Deal’s slowdown on merit pay in this legislative session, coupled with a historic decision in Washington last month to lift long-standing federal mandates for “accountability” testing, has emboldened groups such as the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. The state’s largest educator advocacy organization with 90,000 teachers, bus drivers and school administrators, hopes to get new state laws reducing the number of tests required of students and limiting the effect of the scores on their careers.

The bipartisan rollback of the federal No Child Left Behind law left it to states to decide whether and how to hold teachers accountable with tests. Under current Georgia law, school districts are preparing to base half of a teacher’s evaluation on test results.

“We hope there can be some action this year to reduce testing,” said Craig Harper, the group’s spokesman, “and to reduce or eliminate the testing component for evaluations.”

In a recent survey by the Georgia Department of Education, the number of tests and their use in evaluations were the top reasons teachers gave for a 44 percent turnover rate among teachers within five years of their hire.

It’s unclear how far teachers can carry their momentum, though. While Deal did signal in his state of the state speech Wednesday that he understood their frustration, saying that parenting and other things beyond a teacher’s control affect test scores and that duplicative tests should be eliminated, he also said he did not mean to see tests abolished altogether.

Tests that produce “embarrassing” results can “pinpoint areas in need of remediation,” the governor said. He didn’t ask lawmakers to make a “significant” step toward merit pay, as he had previously indicated he would, but he did ask them to look at the proposals of his Education Reform Commission, which recommended developing alternatives to the current compensation model. Teachers have long been paid on a predictable scale based on their years of experience and credentials earned.

Political observers say backing off merit pay was understandable, since lawmakers will face elections soon after this legislative session ends. There are more than 113,000 public school teachers, many of whom don’t want their pay linked to test scores.

“Nathan Deal doesn’t have to run for re-election, of course, but the rest of the legislators do, and messing with teachers can be a very dangerous political thing to do,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University.

Critics of using tests to evaluate job performance say it will create a cutthroat environment that discourages collaboration and say the tests themselves are flawed and narrow, failing to measure the overall effect of a teacher on a child.

“Standardized tests are rife with errors,” said Rebecca Johnson, who teaches social studies at a Cobb County middle school. “The tests aren’t necessarily accurate measures of what’s happening” in the classroom.

Angering teachers could bring them out to the polls in a foul mood. Although the threat of that voting bloc might stop legislation, it may not be enough to encourage new legislation.

Mike Hassinger, a GOP campaign consultant in metro Atlanta, said it would be easy to target lawmakers as anti-teacher if they push for merit pay. However, he said, it’s more difficult to give them “the bumper sticker treatment” if they do nothing.

“Testing is the status quo,” Hassinger said. “Changing something is harder to do than leaving it alone.”

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Marietta Republican who oversees education legislation in the state Senate, agreed that lawmakers are wary of controversy this year, but said there still could be room for compromise. Not everyone agrees that tests should be weighted so heavily, he said. “The safest thing to do is nothing, but I think there are some improvements you can make to existing legislation if it’s not terribly controversial.”

Deal said he still plans to push his Education Reform Commission’s proposals through the General Assembly, just at a slower pace. In addition to the controversial compensation-models idea, the group proposed a new way of funding school districts based in part on merit pay.

House Speaker David Ralston said he thought the governor wise to stave off action on that agenda for a year.

“I think education is too important for us to have a debate that could become contentious,” Ralston said after Deal’s speech. “I think the steps he’s taken are designed to avoid that, and I applaud him for that.”

Ralston is leaving it up to his committee leaders to decide what to do next. Rep. Brooks Coleman, the chairman of the House Education Committee, didn’t sound like he was in a hurry. The Duluth Republican said he had no immediate plans to introduce legislation. Instead, he will have public meetings — in the evening when teachers can attend.

“I plan to hold some hearings and talk about this whole thing of testing,” he said. Asked whether he would do the same with those Education Reform Commission ideas, he said he didn’t know. “I’m going to wait and see what comes up,” he said.

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