Lawmakers hear teachers on testing, but not committed to changes yet

Despite a chorus of complaints about over-testing in schools and a recent act by Congress to relieve the pressure on educators, no Georgia legislator is stepping up to change state laws on the matter.

With the next session of the Georgia General Assembly set to start Monday, state Superintendent Richard Woods raised an alarm this week, saying there is a “growing crisis” as new teachers see what they’re up against and head for the exits.

Nearly half of new hires quit within five years, according to the state’s teacher certification agency. Their top reasons, according to a new survey by Woods and his Department of Education: the proliferation of tests and the way teachers are judged by the results.

Lawmakers, who are hoping for a short legislative session so they can start campaigning in this election year, are well aware of the powerful teacher constituency. They are offering sympathy, if not legislation, deferring to Gov. Nathan Deal.

He commissioned a broad review of education last year and got a thick packet of recommended changes in December, including one that has angered teachers. It recommended helping school districts develop new pay models, based on the work teachers do rather than their years of experience or level of education, as is the current practice. Deal subsequently said he would like to tie teacher pay to performance, and test results are one common way to measure performance.

Some are saying the era of intense testing went too far. Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, a key lawmaker on educational issues, said teachers have been blamed for low student achievement when there were plenty of causes beyond their control.

“We don’t need to have a default position where teachers are the scapegoat for poor student achievement,” said Tippins, who chairs the Senate’s Education and Youth Committee. State law requires results from tests to count for half of teachers’ evaluations, and Tippins said he’d be “comfortable” if that were cut down to around a third. He’d like to see fewer tests because, he said, the sheer volume and emphasis on them has turned the act of teaching into a “compliance exercise” that could lead to a teacher shortage.

Tippins hasn’t filed legislation to change that, and his counterpart in the house, Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, is saying he wants to study these issues and isn’t ready for action.

Teachers also have a sympathetic ear in House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who said he thinks student test results should count for less than they currently do in teacher evaluations.

“What I have heard from teachers that I respect greatly is that the burden of testing is completely out of control now,” he said. “I think we need to free up teachers to teach and not test.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said in a written statement that he has “great concern” about Georgia’s teacher turnover rate — 44 percent leave within five years, according to the Professional Standards Commission — but said it’s important that “proper assessments” are used to measure and encourage “the best outcomes” for students. He said the state needs to find “the right balance.”

Congress gave Georgia and other states new latitude over testing. Last month, President Barack Obama signed bipartisan legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which ended the federal mandate to use tests as a high-stakes accountability measure as required by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

Under it, states had to impose annual tests on local school districts, and had to enforce harsh penalties against poor-performing schools. The tests remain, but the federal government is now letting states decide how to use the results.

While state leaders talk it over, local school officials say testing has gone too far with damaging results. Fulton County is already seeing signs of a teacher shortage, with about 100 vacancies when school started last fall. Kenneth Zeff, the interim superintendent, said the emphasis on tests is “tying teachers hands,” and “making the job a lot about compliance and not as much about changing kids lives.”

Barbara Stengel, associate chairwoman for teacher education at Vanderbilt University, said the dissatisfaction observed by Wood’s survey — the vast majority of teachers said they would not recommend young people pursue the career — is not surprising, since national surveys have found similar dissatisfaction.

“It confirms right now that teaching doesn’t make sense to the people doing the work,” she said. “It has nothing to do with why they went into it. That’s why they’re leaving.”

Yet strong support remains for tests among some.

National groups such as Students First, an advocacy organization that seeks alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools, say tests are necessary to hold teachers accountable. The other half of teacher evaluations are based on observations by their principals, which are consistently glowing.

“That doesn’t provide effective feedback for either the district administration or the teacher,” said Michael O’Sullivan, the group’s representative in Georgia. He said the organization would oppose an effort to downplay the emphasis on test scores in evaluations, though it would be open to using fewer tests.

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