Houston schools caught between parents, students and state law

Superintendent: Exempting final exams not allowed under new state rules

alopez@macon.comJune 12, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- More than 2,000 students, parents and community members signed an online petition this week in hopes of retaining final exam exemptions for Houston County high school students.

“I don’t blame them,” said school board Chairwoman Marianne Melnick.

As a former principal of Warner Robins High School, Melnick said she witnessed firsthand how the promise of exempting final exams inspired her students to meet grade, attendance and behavior benchmarks.

So while the board understands why parents and students are upset, Melnick would like them to know that the district had no choice in eliminating the tradition of final exam exemptions for high achieving high school students.

In an email sent Wednesday, Superintendent Mark Scott explained the situation to a concerned parent.

“Please understand the changes in our local policy were prompted by changes in state law,” Scott wrote. “Many of the decisions our Board of Education members make are prompted by legislation enacted by our General Assembly, which limits the amount of control we have locally.”

The state legislation in question, House Bill 244, was passed in 2013 and takes effect July 1.

The change to state law will require districts to put in place the Teacher Keys Effectiveness System no later than the 2014-2015 school year.

Student growth as measured through assessments will be required as part of that system, so districts across the state were required to develop Student Learning Objectives, which are standardized exams based on course standards.

Every course that had not previously been covered by state-mandated exams, now has those objectives developed at the district level, which students will take as their final.

“All students are required to take the (Student Learning Objectives) exam,” Scott wrote, “therefore, students are not allowed to exempt.”

How exams are used to help students

Though testing as part of public school culture across the country has been criticized as putting too much pressure on students and teachers, the idea behind the Teacher Keys Effectiveness System and the assessments it requires is to help classroom instructors be as effective as possible, said Matt Cardoza, Georgia Department of Education spokesman.

“Our teacher evaluation system that we had for many years before does not give the kind of feedback to teachers that teachers need,” said Cardoza, adding that the state has received positive feedback about the effectiveness system.

How Houston County has used state mandated test data in the past provides insight on how it will use Student Learning Objectives data in the future.

“What each of our schools do is they take the data once it comes in, our test scores, and they work their school improvement plan around improving in the areas they find weakness,” said Eric Payne, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. “You create a laser-like focus. ... You want to take good areas and see if you can take them to great.”

A question raised by concerned mother Emily Drummond, of Bonaire, was why the revision of the Houston County exam policy set the Student Learning Objectives to be weighted as 20 percent of a students’s final class grade.

This was something the district decided was in the best interest of everyone involved, said Michelle Masters, assistant superintendent of school operations.

Because teachers, schools and districts will be evaluated based on student growth and because the purpose of the assessments is to diagnose student strengths and weaknesses to better guide instruction, students need to take the learning objectives seriously and do the best they can, Masters said.

Houston officials are committed to working with high school principals, students and parents to try to replace the incentive to excel previously provided by final exam exemptions.

Nobody wanted to take away a privilege enjoyed by students, Masters said.

“We are working hard with principals to come up with a way to reward students for their success,” she said.

To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 478-256-9751.

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