Georgia lawmakers seek to reduce school testing

What it does: establishes an innovative assessment pilot program to provide exemptions from certain state-wide assessment requirements. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC STAFF)

Legislation would shift the emphasis from accountability to helping teachers

Students generally don’t like them. Parents may worry there are too many of them. And teachers often complain that they don’t help in the classroom.

Standardized state tests are mandated by federal law to hold public schools accountable, but teachers say the scores, which come after the course or school year is over, don’t help them teach. They need more timely feedback to catch students who are falling behind, so they add on local tests.

Legislation moving quickly through the Georgia General Assembly seeks to eliminate the duplication. Senate Bill 362 would exploit flexibility granted to states by the 2015 federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act to supplant state tests with local exams.

“I don’t know that there’s a school system out there that doesn’t say there’s a better way of doing testing,” said Irene Munn, policy director for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is backing the bill by the Senate’s point man on education, Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta.

SB 362 passed the Senate by a unanimous vote last month, and on Thursday it won approval from the House Education Committee. It could soon get a a vote on the House floor.

If it becomes law, school districts across the state will be able to petition to participate in a pilot program that would let them substitute their own tests for the Georgia Milestones.

Marietta City Schools in Cobb County will be among the petitioning districts. “It’s testing that’s meaningful for teachers, it’s meaningful ultimately for kids,” said John Floresta, Marietta’s chief of strategy. He likened the Milestones to an “autopsy” rather than a teaching aid.

Of course, that is what they were intended to be. State standardized tests became mandatory nearly two decades ago, when President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It shined a light on failure, but imposed what ultimately was seen as impossible expectations. Testing fatigue, and events like Atlanta’s notorious test-cheating scandal, shifted attitudes about testing and led to the Every Student law.

Though the House Education Committee voted unanimously to pass SB 362, there was still some uncertainty about what some might see as a softening of accountability.  Rep. Scott Hilton, R-Peachtree Corners, worried that tests coming soon after a topic is covered may not ensure that students really grasped the material. A test at year’s end is better for checking long-term knowledge, he said. “Are they really retaining what they learned?”

The U.S. Department of Education would have to sign off on the substitution of local interim tests for the Milestones. If it doesn’t, Munn said Georgia would grant the participating districts a concession: Georgia mandates more tests in more subjects than federal law requires, and districts in the pilot program would have to meet only the federal requirement.