ATLANTA – Teacher evaluations would be less dependent on student-exam scores, and parents would be able to opt out of standardized tests under legislation introduced Wednesday in the Senate.

Just three years ago, the legislature enacted a grading system for classroom instructors where half was based on test scores in compliance with federal mandates. The state is only now phasing in that requirement statewide after trying it in a dozen or so districts as part of a $400 million Race to the Top grant Georgia received.

But teachers have loudly complained that reliance on scores is unfair. As the 2016 legislative session began, Senate Republicans announced they had heard the teachers, listing test reform as a top priority.

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman William Ligon is taking the lead by introducing Senate Bill 355 with multiple cosponsors. It’s not pandering to a large voting bloc but rather paying attention to research, he says.

The text of the bill even begins by citing research from a couple of sources showing tests don’t accurately gauge the teacher’s impact – even after three years.

“You have to remember each child is different, and there are children that come from horrible, horrible circumstances, and the method in place does not take that into consideration,” said Ligon, R-St. Simons Island. “That is one of the complaints that a lot of the teachers have had.”

A central argument in favor of requiring students pass the state’s tests when they complete each course is an attempt to ensure all learn the same material regardless of which classroom they happened to be assigned. It was also supposed to assess teachers on their results rather than their seniority and college credentials.

Ligon said in practice, judging teachers based on the tests isn’t effective.

“The problem is that the students in one classroom vary from the students in another classroom: different levels of abilities, performance, backgrounds. There are a lot of factors that can impact that child’s performance, and the testing, purely in and of itself, does not adequately consider those factors.”

The Senate Republicans want to reduce what Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert calls the burden of testing on both teachers and students.

“We get complaints from parents, the teachers and the students that they are spending more time testing than they are learning in the classroom,” said Cowsert, R-Athens.

Some parents have become so frustrated that they keep their children out of school when the tests are administered, he said.

Ligon’s bill not only prohibits penalizing students who skip school those days but also gives parents the ability to opt out without keeping their children at home.

Another Republican bill on a different aspect of testing was also introduced Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee chairman, SB364.

State Superintendent of Schools Richard Woods issued a statement in support of the legislation.

The federal government requires 11 tests while Georgia requires three times that many, according to Woods, who campaigned for office on a platform of test reduction.

“Not only are Georgia students suffering from over-testing, Georgia teachers are, too,” said Woods, a Republican.

He figures that reducing how much teacher evaluations rely on student-test scores from 50 percent to 10 percent will reduce professional strain that causes early career burnout. It will also change the way the evaluations are viewed.

“This would allow the evaluation system to become more of a coaching tool instead of a ‘gotcha’ tool,” he said.

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