Teachers and testing foes get a win under the Gold Dome

Opponents of testing in public schools celebrated Tuesday when the Georgia House of Representatives unanimously approved legislation reducing the number of mandated tests and making teacher evaluations less reliant on student test scores.

"It's a big win for educators, students and parents," said Margaret Ciccarelli, the chief lobbyist for Georgia's biggest teacher advocacy group, after the House's 172-0 passage of Senate Bill 364. Her group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, has more than 90,000 members, and many of them carpet-bombed lawmakers with emails and phone calls demanding a rollback in testing.

Because it was amended slightly by the House, SB 364 must return to the Senate for a second vote. But the Senate had approved the bill unanimously last month, and author Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, who approved the House changes, saw no reason it wouldn't pass again. "I can't imagine that it wouldn't," he said as he left the House floor after the vote.

The legislation amends a 2013 law that required students’ “growth” on state-mandated tests to count for at least half of each teacher evaluation. SB 364 reduces that to 30 percent. It also cuts the number of state-mandated tests from 32 to 24 while introducing new tests in English and math in the first and second grades to ensure youngsters are on track from their earliest days in school.

State Superintendent Richard Woods pushed for the change, unveiling a teacher survey in January that primarily blamed tests and their use in teacher evaluations for substantial turnover among new teachers. The legislation gained support from a broad coalition including the Georgia PTA, with nearly 230,000 members, and the associations for superintendents, school boards and other school leaders.

Even Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, whose House Bill 244 in 2013 led to the current testing regime, supported SB 364. He presented it on the House floor Tuesday, saying it may be the “most important and consequential bill that we will pass this year.” He said it does not dismantle the testing system but does reduce the role of tests in evaluating not only teachers but also school principals and administrators.

Teachers say tests fail to measure all they do to improve student learning and do not account for factors beyond their control, such as poverty or instability in students’ homes. The other part of evaluations is based on reviews of classroom work by trained evaluators, usually a school principal or assistant principal, and teachers typically get high marks from such subjective reviews. Some wanted tests to count for even less than 30 percent, but a bill proposing to set the level at 10 percent didn’t get very far.

Nix said the 2013 law he helped write relied too heavily on tests.

“Feedback has been overwhelming that these numbers are too high,” he told his fellow lawmakers on the House floor, adding, “I know you’ve all heard that we have way too many tests and I certainly believe that we do.”

Implementation under HB 244 was to occur by the 2014-15 school year, but was delayed indefinitely by the switch last spring to a new set of tests that couldn’t be reliably indexed to the old ones. The Georgia Professional Standards Commission has so far refused to use the test-based evaluations for credentialing decisions that could end careers.

Even so, school leaders were focusing on test results, and so were teachers. They and many parents complained of a growing “teach to the test” mentality, and a “drill and kill” repetitiveness that squeegeed creativity from the classroom.

The anti-testing movement gained momentum in December when Congress voted by overwhelming, bipartisan margins to turn away from the test-based 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. The new Every Student Succeeds Act removed heavy sanctions for schools with poor scores, leaving it to states to decide how to handle them. It was seen as a retreat from federal school oversight that grew out of the civil rights movement, yet was hailed as a success by the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama and even, more guardedly, by civil rights proponents who said enough safeguards remained to protect high-poverty and minority populations.

Some still oppose the rollback in Georgia, including the group StudentsFirst, which pushes for better public schools and more alternatives to them. At a hearing in the House last week, Georgia director Michael O’Sullivan said research supports the use of test results in a third to a half of teacher job reviews, and Ryan Mahoney, regional director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said students need to get used to taking tests since they’ll be taking them to get a driver’s license, to gain admission to college and to get a job. “Tests are a part of life,” he said.