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State education reform bill would change testing, evaluation
Plan is largely welcome, but questions remain about details
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Uncertainty about specifics, but a welcome change for educators is the general reaction to a new state law – if Gov. Nathan Deal signs it — that reduces the number of mandatory tests in schools and lessens the effect of test results on teacher evaluations.

The legislation passed by the General Assembly would cut the number of required tests from 32 to 24 and would reduce the percentage those test results make up of a teacher’s evaluation from 50 percent to 30 percent. The bill also reduces the effect on administrators’ evaluations from 70 percent to 40 percent.

Gainesville and Hall County school officials expressed the view last week they would figure it out while recognizing the new law would bring more change.

Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville City Schools, said, “A lot of the things that are being required are ‘best practice’ and we have been doing them.”

“We’ve become quite accustomed to rule changes over the last few years.”

At the same time, Bell and Shea Ray, director of data and student assessment, made the same point as Kevin Bales, the Hall County Schools director of middle and secondary education — the legislation raises as many questions as it answers.

The three also agreed teachers and administrators would be glad to see the changes. Bales noted it will cut “observation” time for administrators doing evaluations from two hours to one hour.

Bell and Bales pointed out the reduction in observation is for those teachers judged “proficient.” That is a majority of the teachers, Bales said.

“Administrators need to be spending time with the ones that are struggling,” Bales said. Administrators still will spend observation time with new teachers or with teachers deemed as “struggling.”

The legislation would cut the number of required tests by eight. Reductions in Milestones tests would be for science and social studies at the third, fourth, sixth and seventh grades.

That reduction leads to questions, city and county officials agreed.

One of the immediate questions is what replaces that 20 percent of the evaluation that was based on test results.

“What is the growth measurement for that seventh-grade social studies teacher who no longer has tests results” that are as large a chunk of the evaluation, Ray asked.

Bell and Ray said that question has been raised with the state Department of Education, but answers are not expected until after Deal signs or vetoes the bill.

The reduction in the percentage that test results count toward a teacher’s evaluation also are likely to be more accepted than the 50 percent in current law, Bales said. He said most comments he has heard agree the 30 percent that test results would count in the evaluation “are relatively fair numbers.”

Bell said one of the certification requirements for teachers is that they participate in a “professional learning community.” That could become a growth measure to be used in the evaluation.

Bell said the city schools “would have a starting point” through “common assessments” in a particular grade or department. Those common threads could be used to develop growth measures, she said.

Most teachers — 70 to 75 percent of them — do not have standardized test results. “Student learning objectives”—SLOs – are developed for those evaluations, the officials said.

Bell said city schools have been developing SLOs for six or seven years because it was one of the original Race to the Top systems.

“Are we going to be responsible for developing SLOs for them? (the missing tests),” Bales wondered.

“We’re in kind of a state of flux right now. We have questions that are unanswered.”

Bales said the county schools have regular, if informal, practices for teachers at all levels to collaborate. He noted that middle school teachers are more formal in that because they have “double planning” periods and routinely have working groups on short- and long-term questions.

Another question, Bales said, whether schools are facing a former problem of more emphasis on language arts and math, as was the case under the No Child Left Behind federal law. The annual yearly progress standards did not include science and social studies, Bales said.

He said education might face “kind of a pendulum” with more emphasis on language arts and math.

Bell agreed. When AYP was created, she said, it was an “unfortunate consequence” that emphasis on social studies and science were downgraded because they were not in the school accountability figures.

The city and county officials also agreed that the emphasis on test results are more useful today, and “is fine the way it is,” Bell said.

“It (testing) was just information out there. It really wasn’t used the way we use it today,” Ray said.

Bales noted, “On the extremes, it says something.” He explained that teachers who consistently are at the top of testing results over a period of years can, and should, be emulated in their instructional methods.

At the other extreme, Bales said, teachers with test results near the bottom of the scale for multiple years have problems. “I’m more willing to have those conversations because it’s not a fluke,” he said.

Bales emphasized comments Will Schofield, Hall County superintendent, made before the legislation passed. Schofield said the state should slow down and consider all ramifications of state and federal law plus teacher certifications before making changes.

Schofield suggested waiting a year. Bales called that “spot on.”

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