Should we be testing kindergartners?

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal AP

The education establishment in Georgia is about to enter what appears to be an annual battle with the governor of Georgia. For the last three years the ebb and flow of the fight has gone from outright war — the Opportunity School District that required a constitutional amendment — to a semi-truce with the passage of House Bill 338. That bill has many of the characteristics of the failed Amendment 1, including the appointment of a chief turnaround officer for the state’s failing schools instead of an Opportunity School District superintendent.

The first battle was a resounding defeat for Gov. Nathan Deal and while he huffed and puffed —threatened even — he took the high road and many of the ideas in Amendment 1 were included in House Bill 338, which works within the state’s existing education infrastructure, something Amendment 1 failed to do.

The reason for Amendment 1’s defeat was the coalescing of the state’s educational powers — and the governor’s underestimation of those powers. Now the two are on course for another butting of heads as the state Department of Education has already sent its draft Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan to the U.S. Department of Education for approval.

Every state seeking a release from No Child Left Behind requirements, must come up with its own plan and Georgia has been working on that plan since May 2016. An advisory committee with working groups was formed, ideas shared, stakeholders identified and feedback received. The committee’s work was compiled into a draft in April with a 30 day review period that began in June. Feedback from that period was received, digested and some revisions were made. All along, the governor’s office was in the loop according to the state’s school Superintendent Richard Woods.

The plan was submitted to the governor for review in August and in a letter dated Sept. 6, the governor wanted changes. Lots of them.

We don’t have the space to adequately address each change requested and admittedly much is covered in educational acronyms that might as well be Greek to most readers, but many of the adjustments have to do with high-stakes testing, accountability and how to accurately measure progress.

On one issue, we must side with the educational establishment. The governor would like to extend assessments (tests) to kindergarten through second-grade. His reasoning makes perfect sense coming from a particular perspective. The governor believes there needs to be an assessment tool (tests) to see “how students are progressing along the developmental; continuum in grades K-3 for the state to make appropriate progress toward the goal of having all students reading on grade level by the end of third grade.” He believes the education department’s plan, using Keenville, a game-based formative assessment, “does not meet this need.”

Woods’ response to the governor was pointed: “I have been very clear that I am not in favor of expanding high-stakes testing, especially for first- and second-graders (six- and seven-year-old children). I believe our state’s educators and parents have been clear in expressing this desire as well.”

Woods has the backing of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. Dr. Allene Magill, PAGE executive director remarked in a media release, “Just as he (the governor) misunderstood Georgian’s desire for local control that resulted in the defeat of the Opportunity School District, Gov. Deal’s requested changes to rely more heavily on high-stakes tests are out-of-touch with the thousands of people who contributed to the new state accountability plan.”

Magill also wrote that while PAGE “does not agree with every component of the plan, the state’s largest education association does believe that the Georgia Department of Education has thoughtfully crafted an accountability plan informed by the voices of people from around the state who are weary of the old model represented by accountability by testing.” Magill encouraged the “DOE to submit its original plan as submitted to Gov. Deal for review rather than yield to his recommendations on removing weighted points for Closing the Gap and on eligibility requirements for struggling schools.”

Dr. Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, also agreed with Woods, “GAE has been fighting what we call ‘toxic testing’ for many years. What Gov. Deal is asking could take us back to the days of over-use and over-emphasis of high-stakes standardized testing that had become ‘toxic’ to our students. The open input period from which Georgia citizens, including thousands of teachers, commented and participated in feedback sessions and online surveys, clearly indicated they wanted to move on from that requirement. Georgia’s plan is truly one put together by Georgians, for Georgians, and it should maintain the integrity of that originality of thought. The plan meets specific needs that our schools need to maximize the opportunities for positive growth and achievement among our students.”

The two sides may just be looking at the issue from different perspectives. Gov. Deal is all about workforce development and how to attract and keep business in the state. The education establishment is all about human development. The two perspectives don’t have to be in opposition. With more communication, we should be able to see our way clear to achieve both goals.