The Georgia General Assembly wrapped up its annual frenzy of bills, votes, debates and occasional nonsense earlier this month, and, as is usually the case, it will take a while for us to fully realize the impact of what was, and was not, done during that session.
Lawmakers left town having approved a massive transportation bill funded by a redistribution of existing and new taxes; medical marijuana legislation that ultimately was watered down more than most supporters would have hoped; more tax credits for car manufacturers considering locating in Georgia; supposed transparency for the state Board of Pardons and Paroles; and a measure to allow voters to decide if they want the state taking over supervision of failing schools.
Lawmakers danced with a “religious liberty” proposal for most of the session that ultimately was left awaiting more debate next year, said no to a couple of different takes on school vouchers, and again did nothing to dramatically improve the woefully inadequate state ethics commission.
As always with the actions of the state’s legislative body, we won’t know the full effect of many of the new initiatives until the concise and often confusing legalese of legislative intent is run through the mill of detail and implementation.
But there was one piece of legislative action for which the impact was both immediate and gratifying.
House Bill 91, sponsored by education committee chairman Brooks Coleman of Duluth, corrected a problem that has existed too long and affected too many.
The legislation removed from limbo thousands of Georgians who, over a period of many years, did everything asked of them academically as high school students, completed all the required course work, earned all the necessary credits, but never earned a diploma because they could not pass all or part of the mandated state graduation test, the Georgia High School Writing Test, or the Basic Skills Test.
While the new legislation applies to students who had trouble with any of three tests, the focus of the legislation was the graduation test.
Georgia enacted the graduation test in 1994, adding a caboose to the train of standardized testing to which students were subjected in the state’s school system. At the height of the “testing proves accountability” craze, the thought was that one final test would prove a student’s worthiness to graduate, somehow establishing with a No. 2 pencil and a bubble form graduation credentials that mere classroom teachers couldn’t be trusted to do on their own.
The test was divided into parts by six academic fields. Students had to pass writing, math, English/language arts, social studies and science. They could not receive a full diploma without posting passing grades on all parts of the test.
For most students, the graduation test was like many others, and passing it was no big deal. Others, however, found it an impediment that in some cases changed their lives. In some cases, students with overall grade point averages of 3.5 and higher never managed to pass all parts of the graduation test. For those who failed, there was a complicated appeals process that required students to meet a high standard in proving hardship or disability.
“Our poor students were asked to do things that I think were impossible for some of them to have to do,” Coleman said during discussion of his legislation.
Imagine being 18, having completed all the required courses needed to graduate, and then not being able to do so because you just aren’t good at taking standardized tests. Maybe you’ve passed all portions of it except the math, and have taken it repeatedly without success. Maybe you just freeze up when confronted with an “all or nothing,” test, no matter how well you know the subject matter.
It doesn’t matter why; if you don’t pass the test, you don’t get a diploma. And so, on that first job application after high school, where it asks if you graduated, you have to say no, even though you may have passed every class as required.
The state Board of Education eliminated the graduation test in 2011, but at that time nothing was done to address the students denied graduation only because they failed it. The legislation passed this year and signed by the governor addresses a problem that should have been resolved when the test was abolished.
The number of Georgians estimated to be in that limbo between passing the course work, but not a required test, is around 8,000. For many of them, the passage of House Bill 91 means they can, finally, call themselves high school graduates, can represent themselves as such to potential employers, can tell their children that yes, they have a high school diploma.
Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield described passage of the legislation as “a life-changer for thousands of Georgians,” and we suspect he is exactly right. Of the 286 bills passed by the General Assembly and forwarded on to the governor, there are many that have more sweeping import for greater numbers of people. But for those students denied a diploma, and their families, it is unlikely action taken by the lawmakers will have more meaning on a personal level.
Maybe there is a subtle subtext we can read into the legislation as well. Maybe there is the recognition that when it comes to benchmarking student achievement, classroom teachers should have the determining role in pass or fail, graduate or not decisions. That’s a concept with which we heartily concur, as the classroom is the true foundation of public education, not the Scantron.
Coleman’s legislation doesn’t change the education profession’s obsession with testing or the apparently undeniable need by educrats to change testing programs, strategies and philosophies every couple of years, if for no other reason than to keep the national testing companies in business. But it does address a misguided wrong done to a lot of young people, and those who secured passage of the legislation in this year’s session deserve our thanks for doing so.