Georgia hopes to embark on a new education plan that shifts away from the tough test-and-punish regime of the past that some say was unrealistic and unfair but others say held schools accountable for all students, including their worst performers.
On Monday, the state will submit its plan for compliance with the latest updates to the federal education law, known as the No Child Left Behind Act under President George Bush and now as the Every Student Succeeds Act, after it was amended with bipartisan support under President Barack Obama more than a year ago.
Proponents say Georgia’s plan increases the flexibility and incentives for school districts to give the state’s nearly 1.8 million public school students what they need. But some critics say it swings too far from tough oversight and allows schools to get high scores on the state report card even as groups of students fail. The plan, according to Gov. Nathan Deal, is “a missed opportunity to set high expectations” for students and schools.
No Child threatened to restructure schools that didn't measure up. Tests created a pressure cooker environment in some schools to the point that educators involved in the worst cheating scandal in the nation, here in Atlanta, blamed pressure to raise test scores when they testified in the trial. A former teacher testified that her school administrators calculated how many students needed to pass their tests to make the goals, and counted out 21 answer sheets that needed to be corrected. "And that's what we worked on," the former teacher said.
The new federal law continues the mandate that students be tested in math and reading starting in third grade, but states will no longer be required by Washington to impose heavy sanctions on schools with poor scores.
Georgia’s plan was written by state Superintendent Richard Woods and his Department of Education, with input from numerous committees. Thousands submitted comments as it evolved, including Deal, with some saying it relied too heavily on testing and others saying testing wasn’t central enough. Some found the plan inscrutable, according to the responses, which were obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the Georgia Open Records Act.
“The plan is way too hard for a layperson to read,” wrote one correspondent. Another responded with one word: “simplify.”
The plan is fundamentally about holding educators accountable. Testing, despite the long-running controversy around it, remains central.
Although Every Student Succeeds rolled back testing mandates, Georgia law still requires more than the minimum federal level of testing. Schools that regularly perform poorly on the report card can become subject to state intervention under a new state law passed this year, the First Priority Act.
Members of the public who opined on the draft plan had mixed opinions about testing.
“Too many tests,” wrote one. “On the right track,” wrote another. Yet others complained that the plan doesn’t hold schools accountable for their students’ scores on all exams. “Students will tell you that it isn’t important for them to pass the EOG [end of grade tests] in science or social studies because ‘they don’t count,’” wrote one person. “They know that as long as they pass math and language arts, they will be moved up to the next grade.”
Woods was caught between the opinions of educators and experts.
Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, complained that the plan was too inflexible on testing. The federal law allows experimentation, its response said, but the plan does not commit to finding alternatives to the current standardized tests.
The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a local think tank, told Woods in a letter the new plan gives schools a pass when the performance of poor kids, minorities, immigrants and other under-performing “subgroups” is downplayed in the state scoring system.
“Georgia has set the expectation that all children will graduate high school ready for college and career,” the group’s president, Stephen Dolinger, wrote. “We believe the long-term academic achievement goals set forth in this plan are not ambitious enough for all children to achieve that goal.”
The governor told Woods his plan lacked ambition, noting in a September 6 letter that the plan’s testing requirements “should be revised and strengthened.”
Deal also said he thought allowing schools to get credit for non-core courses such as art would allow schools that already offer these courses to “pad” their scores, and suggested that other schools that instead use their resources and student time for supplemental reading and math instruction to at-risk students would be penalized. Deal also wrote that encouraging schools to offer Advanced Placement courses without requiring the external check of an AP exam could lead to watered down courses because, he wrote, it “creates an incentive for schools and districts to enroll students in AP courses where there is little monitoring and regulation of quality … .”
Woods agreed to a few of Deal’s requests, for instance committing to raising reading expectations.
But Woods also pushed back: Georgia's school report card, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, will still give elementary and middle schools extra points for offering courses in art, physical education, language and other non-core subjects; and high schools will still get points for enrolling students in Advanced Placement courses, even if they don't take the College Board's AP exams.
Woods responded that the Great Recession trimmed budgets for "enrichment" courses like art, and that Georgians want them restored. And he said it's unfair to sanction schools with low AP exam rates, which cost money to take, when the state doesn't pay for all the tests. The state recently changed its policy about subsidizing the tests.
Woods’ fundamental disagreement was over testing: he said Deal’s requested changes would increase the weight of test results on school scores. “This would be a huge step backward for our state,” he wrote.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will have 120 days to determine whether Georgia’s plan meets the requirements of federal education law, and either ask for changes or approve it. It will be in effect upon approval.
Ty Tagami is the state education reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Since joining the newspaper in 2002, he has written about everything from hurricanes to homelessness. He has deep experience covering local government and education, and can often be found under the Gold Dome when lawmakers meet or in a school somewhere in the state.