Georgia is joining a national movement toward less school testing after years of swamping students with multiple standardized exams, particularly in high school.
The change comes as the state tries to make good on a promise from nearly a decade ago to do away with the Georgia High School Graduation Test, which students must pass to get a diploma. That exam could be phased out starting as early as fall 2011 and replaced with end-of-course exams after a vote by the state Board of Education this week.
And first- and second-grade students in Georgia are getting at least one year of reprieve from the state's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests after state lawmakers left funding for the exams out of the budget. Federal No Child Left Behind law requires testing to start in third grade, but some states including Georgia give standardized tests earlier.
"When you overlay No Child Left Behind testing requirements over state testing requirements, you've got overkill," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Boston-based group that tracks reliance on standardized testing in education. "States are trying to sometimes use tests for multiple purposes and cut back to the minimum that the people with the money - the feds - require."
Georgia education officials said graduation tests are not good measurements of whether students are ready for college and often are just impediments to a diploma, covering subjects that students might have taken two or three years before the test. End-of-course tests give a much more accurate picture of how much a student has learned, educators said.
In Georgia, students take both the graduation test and end-of-course exams, which becomes a burden when coupled with the ACT, SAT and Advanced Placement exams that many students take in their junior and senior years, said interim state schools Superintendent Brad Bryant.
"That gave rise to a group of folks frustrated that we keep adding assessments rather than taking them away," Bryant said. "It really does lend some credibility that we are overassessing our students."
In the last few years, states such as North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Alabama have gotten rid of graduation tests and instead implemented end-of-course exams. By the end of 2015, the Center on Education Policy predicts, up to 15 states will be using end-of-course tests as exit exams, up from five in 2008.
In Georgia, the plan is for students who enter ninth grade in fall 2011 to begin using just end-of-course exams, doing away with the graduation test altogether. For now, end-of-course exams count as 15 percent of a student's grade, but that would increase to 25 percent for the ninth-graders no longer taking graduation tests.
"Testing is important and it's never going to go away, but we don't need to be testing simply for the sake of testing," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which has 80,000 members. "I think it's a welcome move."
The students will still have to take the high school writing exam given in their junior year until 2014, when the state will roll out its new standards based on the Common Core State Standards, a set of sweeping education benchmarks developed by a consortium of states this year. That plan must first get approval from the U.S. Department of Education and go through public hearings in Georgia before it's final.
As for early grades testing in Georgia, it's uncertain whether that will be reinstated. State lawmakers passed a bill eliminating standardized tests for first- and second-graders this year, saying the results are not dependable because the students are too young to concentrate long enough to take the exams.
"What you're measuring in many cases is whether kids can sit still," Schaeffer said.
Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed that bill, but never restored the funds left out by lawmakers, which meant the testing was eliminated for at least one year. It could come up again during the coming legislative session in January after Republican Gov.-elect Nathan Deal takes office.