In November, voters will decide whether the Georgia Constitution should be amended to allow Gov. Nathan Deal to create the Opportunity School District, or OSD. This proposed state takeover of struggling, high-poverty schools uses scores from the College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI, to justify the power grab. The CCRPI derives its scores primarily from student performance on standardized tests. If you’ve kept abreast of the issue, you know that standardized testing in Georgia has earned low marks for reliability. We also know that low test scores are, more than anything, a direct reflection of poverty in a community.
The Georgia Department of Education waived the use of this spring’s Georgia Milestones Assessment System tests for student promotion or retention in grades three, five and eight. Districts were also given the flexibility to retest students who performed poorly on the tests. Most districts reported they would not take the time to retest. Furthermore, because of the problems with the 2015-16 test administration, scores will not be used to produce a Teacher Effectiveness Measure or Leader Effectiveness Measure score for educator evaluations under TKES or LKES until at least the 2019-20 school year. This begs the question: If the scores are not reliable enough to determine student promotion and retention decisions or educator evaluations, how can they be reliable enough to wrest control of schools from a community and locally elected school board?
As evidence mounts, decisions based on standardized test scores are coming under increased scrutiny, and a groundswell of parents and students from all walks of life have opted out of the testing. They cite the negative effects of high-stakes testing on students, their instruction and the educators who teach them. The outcry during the 2016 legislative session came from students, parents, the Georgia PTA, educators and every major education organization in Georgia.
Georgia’s legislators heard the concerns loud and clear. In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, the General Assembly unanimously passed Senate Bill 364, which significantly reduced the use of standardized tests in educator evaluations and dropped the requirement of using Student Learning Objectives for teachers of non-tested grades and content. Another bill that specifically offered testing opt-out provisions was vetoed by the governor.
The call to further diminish the impact of standardized testing will fuel even stronger reaction and advocacy in the 2017 session.
The CCRPI was written as a waiver to offer relief from the overly burdensome and unrealistic expectations of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Congress agreed in December to replace NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act. It provides extensive relief to the most onerous requirements for testing and educator evaluation tied to testing. CCRPI is based on the old federal law, and Georgia will either adjust to meet the Every Student Succeeds Act, or new state guidelines will be written specifically for it. Georgians are being asked to amend the Constitution to allow the state to take over local schools based on an outdated achievement matrix and unreliable test data.
Even if you believe that standardized tests are reliable indicators of performance and that the CCRPI is the best measure of effectiveness, one still has to question why the state needs yet another method to control local schools. The state Department of Education already possesses the power to force change on underperforming schools. So if the state already has a lever to effect change in these schools from a constitutionally empowered agency, why does another branch of government seek to override the DoE? And why would a governor want to wrest control from local boards of education and communities?
It’s a motivation as old as humankind: power, control and money. The governor’s office through the OSD superintendent will have the power to take over schools, facilities and resources and will have the ability to redirect those resources to for-profit corporations to operate the schools as charters without all of the overhead and capital costs that the local board must fund. A superintendent appointed by the governor and managing up to 100 schools from an office in Atlanta cannot be expected to do any better in turning these schools around than the experienced educators who are on-site and working with teams from the district and school to analyze the issues and determine strategic interventions.
That’s especially true if nothing is done to address community issues that leave children and families without the resources to make education a priority. And, contrary to the narrative from OSD proponents, a close examination of the CCRPI data from 2012 to 2014 shows that the OSD-eligible schools as a group showed greater student growth during that three-year period than their "high achieving" counterparts and greater growth than many of the other schools within the state. OSD-eligible schools are almost entirely composed of poor, minority students: More than 90 percent participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program, and 95 percent are either black or Hispanic. In contrast, the high-achieving schools have fewer than a third of students on free and reduced lunch and only about 25 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. As I say to audiences across our state, schools that many label as low achieving reflect the economic and resource challenges of their communities. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that educators in these schools are helping students make significant progress, although they still have far to go. Rather than punish the educators doing the hard work in difficult-to-teach circumstances, our state should do all it can to boost these communities.
The idea of an Opportunity School District only makes sense when viewed from the "opportunities" it provides those who will benefit from wresting power and resources from local communities. It certainly makes no sense for children, communities, educators or local boards of education.
Vote no on OSD in November.
Magill is executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE), a 91,000-member independent educator association.