Georgia takes another look at student testing

Standardized tests are a fact of life in Georgia classrooms, so much that education leaders are now counting just how many tests students take.

Right now, it isn’t clear which standardized tests are given in the state’s 180 school districts.

Getting a handle on that, and assessing how best to use these tests, will continue to be a major issue this year, according to a report released Friday by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

Dana Rickman, the nonpartisan group’s director of policy and research, said high-quality assessments have a place in education, but there is growing concern that tests are now “more about adults than students.”

The state Department of Education is surveying districts and creating an inventory of tests being administered beyond what the state requires.

State Superintendent Richard Woods said he aims to reduce the number of tests, cut out redundancies, and “put testing back into its proper place.”

Standardized tests were named the villain in a survey of more than 53,000 Georgia teachers.

The number of state-mandated tests ranked as the top reason why teachers leave the profession.

The second factor was the method for evaluating teachers, according to the survey published last month.

Student testing is surrounded in controversy, which in Georgia was recently reignited by the prospect of tying teacher pay to classroom results.

Gov. Nathan Deal has said he favors a pay plan that considers classroom performance.

Deal hasn’t outlined a specific proposal, including what type of assessment might be used to judge educators. But student scores carry major heft in the state's teacher evaluation system.

Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said there's already a "healthy skepticism" of that evaluation, which leads to skepticism of performance-based pay as well as a plan called the Opportunity School District, in which the state aims to take over failing schools.

Voters will decide this November whether to allow the state to go forward.

“This testing conversation permeates everything we talk about,” said Abrams, who is the House minority leader, at an education symposium held by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

Weaning teachers off the current pay model, based on experience and education, was one of many recommendations in a report by the governor's Education Reform Commission.

In its report to Deal last month, the commission recommended forcing districts to move to pay plans that factor in “effectiveness” for some portion of a teacher’s salary.

How that's defined would be left to the districts.

Legislators and advocates have questioned whether this can be done fairly.

“I don’t think that’s an unsolvable problem,” said Charles Knapp, who chaired the commission. “I know it’s complicated, but I don’t think you can throw up your hands and walk away from it just because it’s complicated.”

Dr. Susan Andrews, director of special projects for Deal’s Office of Planning and Budget, said the idea is to give districts more funding for new teachers – existing teachers can choose to stay under the old system – so local school officials can develop a new pay plan.

The extra money would give school officials the freedom to do things like pay higher salaries to their best teachers, or give more pay to teachers in “hard-to-staff” schools, she said.

School districts have the authority to do that now. But they don’t have “any flexible money to do it now,” she said. 

Teacher compensation and a new proposed funding formula for education are expected to be dominant issues when lawmakers reconvene under the Gold Dome this Monday.

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jnolin@cnhi.com.

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