This article is an opinion piece by Dr. Tracie McBride, a Christian education activist in her community of Braselton, Georgia. McBride served as the Education Policy Committee Chairperson for Presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson. Dr. McBride has served as a secondary English teacher and administrator in both public and private, Christian schools as well as taught English at two local technical colleges and lives in Hall County, GA with her husband Gary. It is the opinion of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of AllOnGeorgia. This column was published unedited.
Passed by Congress in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, 1965) and replaces the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2002). ESSA scales back the authority of the US Department of Education (USED) and allows states the authority and flexibility to develop their own accountability plans based upon each state’s unique needs.
From May 2016 – August 2017, State School Superintendent Richard Woods and the Georgia Department of Education obtained input from educators and educational stakeholders throughout the state to develop a new accountability plan. Working committees poured over the plethora of feedback to draft a plan that would meet the needs of the whole child. A draft was posted on the GADOE website for public feedback during the summer of 2017 and finalized in early August. On August 14, 2017, Georgia’s accountability plan was sent to Governor Deal in order to provide him ample time for review and feedback before the submission deadline.
Unfortunately, the inclusive, 111 page draft that clearly intends to broaden the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) indicator beyond a focus on test scores, as had been the primary measure in the past, was met by opposition from Governor Deal just a few days before the submission deadline. Even though Governor Deal, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), and their representatives were involved in the plan’s development, the Governor’s letter to Superintendent Woods on September 6, 2017, pointed to eight areas in the plan that “should be addressed and revised” before receiving his signature for submission to the USED. Superintendent Woods’ response on September 14, 2017, delineated each of the eight areas of contention with detailed explanations. Of Governor Deal’s eight recommendations, Superintendent Woods acquiesced to five of the eight. Nonetheless, the plan including three areas of contention, enumerated below, was submitted to the USED on September 18th without the governor’s blessing or signature:
- CCRPI Closing Gaps points for schools who show progress with the subgroups of students with disabilities, high poverty students, and English language learners;
- CCRPI Closing Gaps points for student attendance, art/music programs, physical education programs, Career, Technical, and Agriculture Education (CTAE) programs and career pathway completion, and Advanced Placement (AP)/International Baccalaureate (IB) program enrollment; and
- High-stakes testing for CCRPI calculations for students in grades K-2.
According to Governor Deal’s letter to Woods, CCRPI Closing Gaps points “give an advantage to schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), because all their students are counted as economically disadvantaged (ED).” Deal believes these additional points would “complicate the index and may effectively lower student learning expectations.” Additionally, Governor Deal asserts that student attendance is not a student outcome; therefore, student attendance is “not an appropriate measure for the accountability index.” According to the governor, elementary/middle schools that already offer art, music, PE, health, language programs, and career exploratory programs through “specials” or “learning connections” will have an additional 6.7 points for doing nothing differently – just by offering these programs. Since students who need additional support for reading and math instruction are pulled from these programs, the skewed scores will be confusing, complicating the CCRPI calculations. Furthermore, the governor believes that points should not be given to incentivize programs that do not measure outcomes, such as AP/IB or dual enrollment (DE). Pathway Completion Readiness should not be included in the high school index as it simply incentivizes the completion rather than provides points for outcomes. Lastly, the governor believes that students in grades K-2 must be assessed for continuity in the assessment program as he states that “the accountability is not adequately addressed in the draft plan.”
While Superintendent Woods provided a respectful and resolute rebuttal to the governor’s recommendations, Woods’ response letter, dated September 14, 2017, was evidently too little and too late for the governor to sign off on the final draft of the plan even though five of the governor’s recommendations were accepted. While the governor took over three weeks to review and send recommendations to the superintendent, Woods’ response, coming a week later, has been criticized. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC), State of Education Board member and Deal appointee Larry Winter asserted that Woods had ignored the governor’s recommendations to the point the governor would not sign the plan; moreover, Winter implied that the governor’s voice should carry more weight than others who contributed to the process. In representing the feedback from thousands of Georgia stakeholders, Woods reiterated that one main goal of the ESSA plan was to broaden the CCRPI metric beyond the stringent focus on high stakes’ testing, reminiscent of AYP and NCLB days, so that there would be more opportunities for students to obtain a well-rounded education that, in turn, the CCRPI would now reflect.
Woods maintained that representatives from the Governor’s Office, GOSA, and two State Board members had worked on the plan throughout the process and were certainly aware of overwhelming stakeholder feedback to decrease the emphasis on high-stakes’ testing; however, Governor Deal contended that K-2 assessments were inadequate. Even though high-stakes’ tests are not developmentally appropriate for students in grades K-2 since these tests would be taken on computers, the governor’s lack of confidence in the alternate assessments proposed in the plan was apparent. High-stakes’ test development would be costly for Georgia taxpayers with little assurance of validity and reliability due to students’ lack of experience in testing overall and lack of computer skills. Surely, most reasonable Georgia taxpayers and educators would agree with Woods that alternative ways to assess children at these early grades, as is written into the ESSA plan, would be much better.
Additionally, the governor’s belief that the CCRPI indicator should exclude incentivizing students’ participation in a wide range of programs from art/music to AP/IB or CTAE classes with or without pathway completion shows his lack of understanding the value students gain simply from exposure to courses they might not initially choose for themselves. Schools that provide a wide array of programs and choices for students should be awarded for these efforts even though a direct test score might not be available for each course when it ends, such as AP test scores which do not become available until July. Woods’ assertion that the lack of inclusivity for these programs as a part of the accountability measure puts more weight and emphasis on high-stakes testing is absolutely right. Here again, the governor’s desire to emphasize high-stakes’ tests over a broader accountability measure seems to defy the purpose of the plan, to allow more flexibility and greater control of education to local school districts.
Regardless of any criticism from the governor and his representatives, Woods holds fast to his “Redesigned CCRPI under ESSA” plan as “simplified” and “streamlined, reflecting “statewide stakeholder feedback and the recommendations of the Accountability Working Committee.” In a presentation to the State Board of Education on September 28, 2017, Woods provided his view of accountability as a “supporting role” to the state in meeting the holistic educational needs of children rather than a “driving force” of educational decisions. As a measure of accountability that incorporates measures of content mastery, progress, closing gaps, readiness, and graduation rate while also including multiple measures of college and career readiness via multiple pathways to success, the redesigned CCRPI awards points where possible rather than “denying points when expectations are not met.” The plan necessitates new reports to “improve communication” and utilize data more effectively. The new report prototype and updated ESSA accountability plan information can be found on the Georgia DOE website whereby educators and the public can view a video, tour the prototype, and offer feedback. A visual side-by-side guide on the current CCRPI versus the redesigned CCRPI readily shows a simpler process moving forward.
While Georgia’s ESSA plan has been submitted to the USED without Governor Deal’s signature, Superintendent Woods and the Georgia Department of Education must now await USED Secretary DeVos’s approval. While the many Georgians who provided input and feedback toward Superintendent Wood’s Herculean efforts in redesigning the CCRPI for accountability under ESSA are hopeful for DeVos’s approval, she may hesitate due to Governor Deal’s missing signature. In this highly politicized climate where political clout, big business test publishers and software companies, and big money lobbyists with deep pockets and long history seem to rule the day, hopefully, the voices of Georgia’s stakeholders may prevail. Ultimately, DeVos’s approval will allow the changes in the accountability plan that call for a shift in perspective from a focus on testing to a broader and fairer measure of school accountability to move forward per the wishes of Georgia educators and stakeholders. If she side-steps with the governor, especially in the area of high-stakes’ testing for K-2 students, we may have taken monumental leaps forward through an incredible process of listening, discussion, and feedback only to land back at the place where politics, power, and money drown out the voices of the majority – the place where big business wins and Georgia’s children lose.