Ga. educators give Kemp earful about tests that make kids cry, vomit

Credit: Ty Tagami

Credit: Ty Tagami

Testing has been so overwhelming in some Georgia schools that educators are swapping stories about anxious students vomiting on their exams.

"When I was over testing, I had to bag up tests that a child got sick on several times, and send it to the testing company,” said Richard Woods, who was a local school administrator before he was elected state school superintendent.

Woods was commiserating with a roomful of teachers at Georgia Gwinnett College Wednesday evening, at an invitation-only event arranged by the governor’s education office.

Many of the hundred or so in attendance shared similar stories about the effects of mandatory tests on their students and on themselves.

"I'm seeing droves of teachers literally walking out of the school,” Gwinnett County elementary school teacher Jonathan Dixson told Gov. Brian Kemp. "It just seems like everybody's overwhelmed."

Teachers murmured in agreement, and all the others who spoke about testing were similarly critical. Some said they believed testing is necessary for both accountability and for the tracking of student progress, but they said Georgia had taken it too far.

In 2016, lawmakers reduced the number of mandatory standardized tests — called the Georgia Milestones — from 32 to 24, eliminating the science and social studies exams from third, fourth, sixth and seventh grades.

The number of tests they kept is still above the 17 required by federal law, though, with most of the surplus exams in high school.

Kemp's people clearly know it's an issue, having attended similar forums with school leaders last spring. Working with Woods' staff, they produced a summary of what they'd heard from their "listening tour" across the state.

“Educational leaders are concerned about the time dedicated to high-stakes testing, the impact of those tests on students, and the degree to which curriculum and classroom behavior are being driven by assessments,” the report says.

It was Joy Hawkins, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, who set the table for the test critiques Wednesday, when she opened the public comment session by asking teachers to address the topic.

That drew laughter, leading her to quip: “We’ll have to be here about six hours.”

Although Woods said he’d like to see the number of tests reduced to the federal minimum, the people with the power to do that didn’t make any promises.

Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, the chairman of the House Education Committee, was seated in the front row, but didn’t speak. Kemp, who left early and didn’t make concluding comments, said before the teachers spoke that he was there to hear from them about “what’s working and not working.”

Monica Hardy was the first to speak and knew exactly what wasn’t working.

The elementary school teacher from Wilkes County in northeast Georgia said some of her students have been moved to tears because the tests were so long they couldn’t finish. It made them question their intelligence, she said.

"It's just too much, and I think all of us agree on that. We've got third graders, fourth, fifth graders, sitting for two, three hours struggling,” she said.

Jennifer Gilmer, a Gwinnett kindergarten teacher, said her own daughter had to take a writing test 19 times before she scored well enough to earn her diploma. She grew ill and had to go to the hospital, and Gilmer thinks it was due to the stress.

"I agree that we do need that data from assessments,” she said, “but sometimes it's too much.”

Woods noted some changes in the works. The federal government has given Georgia tentative approval to waive the Milestones in a handful of school districts. The districts are experimenting with a new kind of test that would reduce duplication, replacing both the Milestones and some non-mandatory tests used locally to track students and inform teaching. The Georgia Department of Education and state board of education are also developing a waiver of high school Milestones tests for students who pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course and accompanying test. The waiver may be in place by spring, but wouldn't apply to freshman courses — algebra, literature and biology — with a federally-mandated exam.

Woods said the state can change the nature of the tests but is stuck with the federal requirement for tests of certain subjects in certain grades. (Math and English Language Arts are core tested areas.) He added that state leaders appear to be considering eliminating more tests.

“I think right now we are working on, and I do believe we'll get down to the federal minimum,” he said. “I think we have to go to that."