Tired of school testing, Georgia cuts back

5:37 p.m Monday, April 4, 2016 Education
Rep. Randy Nix (right), R - LaGrange, who carried the bill in the House, confers with Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, who sponsored the bill, after it's passage. Senate Bill 364 passed the House Tuesday. It is the biggest education-related bill of this legislative session. It cuts back on testing and the use of tests in teacher evaluations, affecting more than 100,000 teachers and 1.7 million Georgia students. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Nine hours after this year’s legislative session ended, when lawmakers passed two bills aimed at reducing the burden of testing in classrooms, a metro Atlanta school district took actions of its own.

Cherokee County suspended some of the tests it had required in the past. The new superintendent, Brian Hightower, was concerned about the stress of “excessive” testing.

The move in the General Assembly and Cherokee County came in part because teachers, parents and students in Georgia pushed back on testing by supporting legislation to limit them. And some students, with parents support, are refusing to take tests. It’s part of a growing national movement playing out on political stages and in families as a reaction to an age when testing became a key to quantify educational attainment or failure and to evaluate teachers.

“When students are filled with anxiety instead of being excited about showing off new-found skills and knowledge, there’s a problem, and we need to take a closer look,” Hightower said through a spokeswoman. “These suspensions are a first step.”

Georgia school systems give state mandated tests, such as the Georgia Milestones, that measure student learning progress in math and other core subjects. Districts also choose to give other tests that measure student achievement, or to test students for entry into gifted and advanced classes. Students with college ambitions also have to take tests such as the SAT.

Testing fatigue has set in, and Georgia mothers played a role this year in pushing Senate bills 364 and 355, and even helping write 355. Both pieces of legislation were aimed at the state mandated tests, not the local tests targeted by Cherokee.

Stacey Gyorgyi, a mother in Gwinnett County, got so upset about tests and the treatment of students who refused them that she joined a fledgling group called Opt Out Georgia, which she now helps to run. She believes the results from the Milestones tests do nothing for students and are merely used as a tool to measure teacher performance.

Milestones tests span third grade to high school and measure how well students have learned knowledge and skills outlined in the state content standards for language, math, science and social studies.

Many teachers have complained that the results come too late to be of any help with instructing failing students, since the tests are given at the end of a course or the school year and the results return weeks or months later. Parents and some educators believe teachers spend too much time focusing on test preparation rather than teaching subject matters.

Gyorgyi helped the sponsoring senator write Senate Bill 355, which says school districts cannot retaliate against students who refuse to take state tests. It guarantees students an opt-out for medical reasons, offers accommodations for the disabled, and it provides the option of pencil and paper for kids who don’t like to test on computers.

Georgia lawmakers also took a loosening of federal restrictions on test requirements and voted in an overwhelming, bipartisan way to loosen the screws on teachers. SB 364 will slash the use of test results on teacher and administrator job evaluations, and it will reduce the number of state-mandated tests.

Gov. Nathan Deal hasn’t said if he will sign the bills, which focus on state-mandated tests, such as the Georgia Milestones.

Students like Noah Stapp, 14, hope Deal will sign the bills into law. Last spring, after he refused to take the Milestones at Dawson County Middle School, he was assigned a history project on Anne Frank. On test day, after his fellow students finished and were celebrating outside with ice cream, he had to keep working on a scrap book for his report.

Noah said he’s a straight-A student and refused the test with the support of his mother, whose research told her the tests were merely “data collection” to be used against teachers.

“I wanted to show kids this wasn’t required,” said Noah, who felt he was treated rudely by a school that, like any school, could face some loss of funding if large numbers of students opt out. “I think they could have been nicer about it.”

Rick Brown, the chief academic officer for Dawson, said student privacy laws prohibit him from addressing Noah’s case, but he said the school district does not punish students who refuse the tests. “If we present the test and the kid refuses it, the kid still sits there,” he said, adding that the state policy also prohibits reading by nonparticipants during testing.

“We are opting out to deny the data used to hurt our teachers,” Gyorgyi said. “We’re making a statement that education policy is broken.”

The Cherokee County School District is eliminating the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in every grade and the CogAT — used to quality children for advanced class placement — in most grades next year. Those cuts will also save the district $100,000. The Georgia Department of Education was unaware of other districts following suit, but the agency is working with the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education to inventory the number of tests given in school districts across the state.

“I would expect to see more districts looking at what assessments they are using, and why, and seeing where they can make adjustments,” said Dana Rickman, a director with the GPEE, a nonprofit. Georgia’s inventory won’t be done until next year, she said, but other states, such as Florida, have found that the majority of the time spent testing is for locally-administered exams, like those suspended by Cherokee.

Districts use those tests to prep for the state-mandated tests, Rickman said.

She said, “What they have found with most of this testing fatigue is districts are doing it to themselves.”

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