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Athens Banner Herald

An Interactive Series

Part One: Testing

Time and time again, educators have felt extreme pressure to have their students perform well on standardized tests rather in the classroom. Have Georgia testing requirements gone too far?


 rom State School Superintendent Richard Woods on down, it’s hard to find a Georgia educator who doesn’t believe standardized testing is out of control in Georgia. “I think we do too much testing. I think our testing drives the system, when our students ought to be driving the system,"

Woods told a group of Cedar Shoals High School teachers Monday in what was the new superintendent’s first official visit to one of the state’s public schools.

Photography: Laura Baker Publication: 2/1/15 Story: Lee Shearer Video: Heather Hyatt

That same day, Woods sent a letter to federal lawmakers, asking them to back off the heavy testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law that directed states to begin, or to ramp up, their standardized testing. The U.S. House of Representatives is in the process of reauthorizing NCLB. According to Education Week, the new bill would keep the current testing regime in place, but would leave school improvement decisions up to individual states.


NCLB mandates yearly assessments in math and reading for public school students in grades 3-8, and at least one reading and math test for high school students. Students should also take tests in science, the feds said — once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school.


It was left up to the states to design their own tests and set their own standards for what constitutes a passing performance, but schools had to make “adequate yearly progress” toward the goal of having 100 percent of students make a passing score on the standardized tests. Schools that didn’t measure up, as determined by the tests, were given flunking grades. The law also mandated that states should create standardized methods of assessing teachers’ performances and that test scores should be part of those assessments.


Lawmakers in some states, notably Georgia, have taken that emphasis on testing much further.


“I think our testing drives the system, when the students should be driving the system.” - Richard Woods



They’re meant to be more closely aligned with the new Common Core curriculum framework adopted by Georgia and many other states, and to work with the new teacher and administrator assessment system.

But this year, the Milestones won’t count at all for students, although the law requires that they will count in teachers’ grades.


Clarke’s students don’t do particularly well on the state tests, although scores climbed steadily over the past decade. The county has one of the highest poverty rates in the state and test scores are highly correlated with family income. School systems in places that rank high on wealth are almost always the ones that post the highest scores, and students in poverty — and their teachers — face barriers their wealthier neighbors don’t.


But administrators in high-performing school districts also say it’s time to call a halt to runaway testing.


“I believe we’ve crossed the line,” said Superintendent John Jackson of the Jefferson City school system, one of the state’s highest-scoring school districts. “When you couple the student tests with the evaluation process, school administrators are just stretched to the absolute ‘nth’ degree. I’m afraid at some point the wagon is going to break down. The amount of testing and paperwork has just gotten overwhelming.”


When Georgia and other states began emphasizing standardized testing, many educators worried the tests would distort education by pressuring teachers to “teach to the test."


“I have my doubts (that it’s possible not to teach to the test anymore),” Jackson said.










Under a 2-year-old state law, a Georgia student beginning school this year will have to take dozens of standardized tests before he or she graduates. The law mandates testing for nearly every course, including art and music classes.


The same law set a formula for grading teachers and administrators in which standardized test scores count more than in any other state — 50 percent for teachers, 70 percent for their principals.


The law’s provision for testing in courses that weren’t previously mandated has put school districts into the test-designing business. Each district is responsible for developing its own Student Learning Objectives, and for testing students to make sure they’ve achieved those objectives — much like what teachers have been doing for many years in giving grades.



Clarke County offers about three times as many courses that require SLOs than courses that are part of the state testing program, said Clarke County School Superintendent Philip Lanoue. Developing all those SLOs has been expensive and time-consuming, taking away days of instructional time, he says.


“It’s paralyzing us,” said Lanoue, the state’s Superintendent of the Year.


“It’s overwhelming at times,” agreed Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School Principal Melanie Sigler, a finalist for state Middle School Principal of the Year honors. Sigler pointed out another curiosity about the state legislature’s teacher assessment system: Test results, and teacher scores, won’t come in until after teachers and principals have signed contracts for the next year.


This year, there’s another big question mark as the state introduces a whole new suite of tests.


Georgia developed tests called Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, or CRCTs, to meet the requirements of NCLB. But this year, the state is introducing the Georgia Milestones, an entirely new set of assessments.






Average Passing Scores for Clarke-County Students


Percentage of Fifth Graders Passing CRCT Math (2013)

“It's paralyzing us.” - Phillip Lanoue


Percentage of Student that Qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch

Standardized tests do have an important role to play in Georgia schools, said Dana Rickman, policy and research director for the nonpartisan Partnership for Excellence in Education.


“Personally, I’m actually in favor of assessment, but not the way it is,” she said.


The testing regime of No Child Left Behind required states to break down test scores into student subgroups — African American, white, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged, for example — to see how big the disparities are and to track how well schools were doing at closing those gaps, she pointed out.


But “that’s one of the few benefits,” she said. “They’ve (tests) taken over a greater role than just measuring student progress, things they were not originally designed to do,” she said.


Melissa Fincher, associate state superintendent for assessment and accountability — the official in charge of state testing — believes that testing is important. No test is perfect, but scores do show students’ mastery of subject material, she said.




“Personally, I’m actually in favor of assessment, but not the way it is.” - Dana Rickman
“A test is not the total sum of what a teacher does.” - Melissa Fincher


Test results can also be helpful to teachers. In fact, the state Department of Education has created a longitudinal tracking system that can show teachers, parents and students their areas of strength and weakness based on those tests — and not just a weakness in math, for example, but what aspects of math might be a problem.


But Fincher, too, believes “this test-based culture” is out of control.


“Clearly, we are out of whack,” she said. “Education is about teaching and learning, and a test is not the sum total of education. A test is not the sum total of what a teacher does.”

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Test out your common core knowledge with our sample test!



C) Brazil



a) Georgia



         c) 2


What is the largest South American country by area?


a) Argentina

b) Brazil

c) Chile

d) Mexico



Which of the following states is NOT on the Gulf of Mexico?


a) Georgia

b) Texas

c) Florida

d) Alabama



Which of the following is the lowest prime number?


a) 0

b) 1

c) 2

d) 3

A team of NMI students has collaborated with industry professionals to bring interactive storytelling to the Athens Banner Herald. Working together, they've produced a richer news experience—with a focus on interactive data visualization—that engages the audience in new ways. Finally, taking what they've learned from creating these stories, they've created NewsKit, an open-source best practices guide for news organizations around the county looking to create similar projects.