The story behind an unexpected Georgia anti-testing bill

Feb. 16, 2016, Atlanta -- Parents and teachers with the group TRAGIC rally across the street from the Gold Dome. TY TAGAMI/AJC

Feb. 16, 2016, Atlanta — Parents and teachers with the group TRAGIC rally across the street from the Gold Dome. TY TAGAMI/AJC

During the early weeks of this legislative session, there was a persistent rumor under the Gold Dome that something was going to fill the political void left by Gov. Nathan Deal.

When he backed off his education initiatives, there was talk of legislation that would target achievement tests and their use in teacher evaluations.

This talk went on for a while, until finally last week something unexpected happened: not one, but two competing bills popped up within a day of each other in the Senate. The chairman of the committee that handles school legislation had been hinting he had something coming. But by the time Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, filed Senate Bill 364, someone else had beat him to it.

The day before he acted, Tippins’ Republican colleague, William T. Ligon, Jr., dropped Senate Bill 355 into the “hopper” in the Secretary of the Senate’s office. Ligon is not on Tippins’ Education and Youth committee, and neither were the co-signers on his bill. So it was something of a surprise to lobbyists and other Capitol watchers.

Where did it come from, they wondered.

Stacey Gyorgyi and Meg Norris can answer that. I bumped into them while covering a rally at the Capitol this week, and they shared a story a year in the making.

Gyorgyi’s children attend school in Gwinnett County, where the high-pressure exams were causing distress. They were chewing their finger nails and pulling out their eyelashes as the Milestones tests loomed last spring.

Gyorgyi had read about the “opt-out” movement in New York, and wondered why she hadn’t heard of one here. After some searching online, she found Norris, a former English teacher from Hall County who said she quit because of the effect of the tests on her students. She founded Opt Out Georgia on Facebook. They traded emails and phone calls and before long Gyorgyi was welcomed into the inner circle, traveling around the state to living rooms and conventions to encourage parents to opt their children out of the tests.

Then, in December, with the legislative session approaching, they contacted Ligon. Norris had worked with him during a prior session, on legislation against the Common Core standards.

After several tries, they coordinated calendars and met at a Roswell restaurant. Over three hours, the activists shared a binder full of anecdotes from parents about the effect of the tests on their children.

“Ligon’s face lit up,” Gyorgyi said. “He said ‘student-teacher protection act. That’s what we need to call it.'”

Ligon, who is in the Republican Senate leadership as majority caucus chairman, confirmed their account, but added a bit. “We were going to do something,” he said, “but they provided us with a lot of help and saved us a lot of time.”

Tippins, as chairman of the Senate Education and Youth committee, will influence any testing legislation that emerges from his side of the General Assembly. His bill is similar to Ligon’s. Both reduce the weight of tests in teacher evaluations, but by different degrees. Tippins would drop them from half of each job review, to 30 percent in 178 of Georgia’s 180 school districts (that’s a long story), while Ligon pushes them down to 10 percent in all 180. Both don’t count scores of chronically absent students, but Ligon’s definition is more liberal: his bill won’t count students who miss 10 days of school each year (typically 180 days long), while Tippins’ only skips students who miss at least a fifth of a school year.

There is at least one major difference: Ligon creates an opt-out provision that prohibits punishment for a student who skips a test. He said he’s willing to merge some elements of his bill, if Tippins is willing.

Gyorgyi, who spent countless late nights on the research behind the legislation, is willing to go only so far, though.

“The parent refusal is not something we’re going to budge on,” she said.

Norris agrees. “When you have a child who is mentally at the breaking point and you can’t call up and say ‘my child doesn’t want to do that’ and the school says ‘you have to,’ it’s criminal,” she said.

Read more about the two bills

I invited Gyorgyi and Norris to write a column for this blog. Gyorgyi’s schedule didn’t permit, so she deferred to Norris, who took me up on it. This is from her:

Senate Bill 355, the Student/Teacher Protection Act, was born of years of frustration and activism. One teacher and one mom who had had enough joined forces to write SB 355. Supporting this effort are other parents who want to see their children and teachers protected. I am that teacher.

After seeing the effects of testing and bad standards on my students and their learning environment, I left the classroom to give students a voice.  After two years and over 200 speeches given throughout the Southeast, I met a mom who was just as angry and just as loud.  Together we turned to Senator William Ligon and Representative David Stover for help. Both men are champions for education in Georgia. They understand our concerns and see the toxic environments being created in Georgia’s classrooms.  When testing is “high stakes” anxiety rapidly becomes damaging to young brains. High stakes means teacher jobs, promotions, and pay are at risk when students do poorly on the test. For students, high stakes mean they may not be promoted to the next grade based on results from one test.

When testing is truly about the children and used as a measurement tool for academic progress, it can be positive. When a test is statistically valid and reliable, research shows it can reveal the 7-14% influence a teacher has over students’ test outcomes.  This is not what the Georgia Milestones test does for education.

The Georgia Milestones are neither valid nor reliable, yet they are being counted as 50% of a teacher’s evaluation. An invalid and unreliable test is similar to the doctor checking a patient’s temperature with a non-calibrated thermometer.  This should make Georgia taxpayers question why tax dollars are being spent on this tool.

In addition to an invalid and unreliable test, the Georgia Milestones test is causing damage to Georgia’s students. The numbers of students being seen by medical and psychological practitioners for anxiety related illnesses and behaviors have exploded. This anxiety has been linked back to the pressure schools are putting on children to pass the Georgia Milestones.

If similar anxiety related issues were originating from a child’s home, these children would be referred to another agency such as the Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS). DFACS would then be required to investigate. If one state agency recognizes these complaints, it is curious why another state agency, such as the school, will not. Anxiety related problems are indeed resulting from the pressure students and teachers feel due to the high stakes nature of these tests. It is for that reason the Georgia legislature needs to enact law to ensure healthy learning environments.

Parents are the resident experts of their own children, and they must be supported in the decision to remove their children from toxic, anxiety inducing environments, including the testing environment, when it becomes overwhelming to the child.

Offering this parental assurance would align with reasons many parents vote for local and parental control of education.  The opportunity to refuse these tests is critical as parents need to defend our children from further federal encroachment into our schools.  It is the duty of our state elected officials to protect the rights of students and parents, not their reelection funds. Georgia’s legislators should pave the path for teaching and learning to again be a joy to Georgia’s teachers and students.

Protecting teachers and students does not fit Governor Deal’s plan for privatizing education.  Efforts to protect teachers and students could fall prey to the same obstructionists who have torn apart the Atlanta Public Schools and have created the Opportunity School District.  Politicians in favor of the Opportunity School District do not protect our children or make education better for all.  They desire money rather than a foundational public education for all of Georgia’s students.

I encourage parents to protect their students from toxic testing by exercising their parental rights and refusing Milestones tests this spring.  Call your representatives and demand protection of parental rights as well as valid and reliable tests for measuring true academic progress. Testing is not the enemy.  The enemies are bad testing, toxic testing, and invalid testing.  Teachers are not “driving instruction” with these tests.  Politicians are driving out good teachers and driving our kids to hate school.

Meg Norris submitted this bio: Meg Norris is a doctoral candidate in education and is a certified Georgia teacher.  She founded Opt Out Georgia where she and an amazing team of moms help parents interested in exercising their parental rights to refuse test participation.

Reader Comments 1

96 comments
Outspoken Mom
Outspoken Mom

I am Stacey Gyorgyi and will post under MY real name.  My son, who was referenced in this article, is in 4th grade and a straight A student in the Gifted program.  He BARELY made the first line of the top level of Distinguished Learner on the Milestones last year.  You ask me how kids are going to score well on this test at ANY level?  I have a friend who is an 8th grade math teacher.  The first 88 days of this school year there were only 58 days instructional and 30 days of testing and test prep.  Gwinnett County did not even put out their testing schedule before the school year started, as they had District Assessments and SPGs the FIRST TWO WEEKS of school.  Is that any way to bring a child into the new year of school?


Opt out, or refusal, is not because I am teaching my children to be "entitled", lazy, not having to do what they do not want to, or any other nasty comments you want to throw in here.  Children, ages 8 and up,  should not have to take 32 tests where most of them do not even count toward their grade or are not teacher written... most are for funding.  Senator Tippins, in SB 364,  even threw in testing for K-2.  Are you kidding me?  I am convinced he saw SB 355 and handed it to the GADOE who then came up with SB 364.  The similarities are too many to be coincidental.


These teachers, who we entrust our children to more waking time during the week than we have them, are working 10-11 hour days, getting insurance increases and not being paid half of what they are worth in my opinion.  The insurance increases are coming from the state cutting their share of what they are paying towards it, therefore increasing the teacher's portion.  A 3% raise will not even touch the increase.

Yes, they should be evaluated as well, but not by a bunch of tests that are not proven valid & reliable and count for 50% of their evaluation.  You are setting these teachers up just to teach to the test and are taking the joy of teaching and learning out of the classroom for not only the teachers, but the children as well.


If you cannot see it already, the end goal is to get rid of all of these teachers who, believe me they do not do it for the money, but for their love of children, and employ facilitators.  Every student will have some type of electronic device and facilitators.  They are already doing this in some of the high schools.  There are high schools being built around the country with the kids walking around with their chromebooks and iPads with "teachers" already acting as babysitters.  (see Legacy High School in N. Dakota).  I believe the goal in Georgia, starting with OSD, is to privatize public education.  There is more money to be made with Charter schools than there is now.  Counties have already signed SWSS/IE2 contracts so if a school is "failing", the state can come in and take it over.


I know for myself and my husband, who both went to great public schools in NY and IN, we wanted to believe our children were getting the same public school education we did.  We wanted to believe our children were as safe at school as they are in our home.  We are "old school" parents.  My children come home, they do their homework.  We know exactly what is going on with our kids and are in contact with their teachers when we need to be.  I know how easy it is to just stick your head in the sand... believe me, I wish I was still ignorant to all that is transpiring right under our very eyes.  


I thank God every day I found Meg Norris a year ago.  I literally thought I was going crazy seeing the work that was coming home and how it was affecting my son.  This woman walked away from teaching three years ago to fight for the children and teachers throughout the state.  I am honored to be working with her and the other admins at Opt Out Georgia to return the schools back to the teachers and parents who are the ones that really know what these children need... not a bunch of legislators that have never stepped in a classroom.

CSpinks
CSpinks

@Outspoken Mom THANKS to you, Stacey and Meg, for standing up for our children. From courageous stands such as yours will come marked improvements to GaPubEd which too often serves the interests of the educrats who manipulate our public educational system rather the interests of the children enrolled in it.

class80olddog
class80olddog

It is confusing to me how parents say their kids are getting anxiety attacks over these tests that everyone knows count almost nothing to their grades.  Some kids get anxiety attacks and some supposedly don't care and just randomly answer the questions. 

Starik
Starik

@class80olddog These kids will grow up and have to compete for jobs that require more and more education.  Save your kid from anxiety now and they can worry about jobs later.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Starik @class80olddog Or let your kids get used to testing - they are going to face a lot of testing and a lot of competition - for colleges and for jobs.

dg417s
dg417s

@class80olddog Actually, 20% can make a big difference. I had a child blow off her test and it dropped her from a strong B to an 80 (after rounding). She then pestered me for 3 weeks about her extra credit. I had to explain to her that her blowing off the test and only scoring a 56 had done the damage. That's how it works for the high school tests anyway.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@dg417s @class80olddog Curiosity - does the test count 20% or 10%?  And if my math works, if she had a 56 on that test and it counted 20%, her grade average must have been an 86% - not exactly what I would call a "strong B".

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@class80olddog @Starik Yep...coming from a person that clearly grew up without a graduation test. and more than one diploma option. General, Vocational, College Prep, or GED.

Starik
Starik

@JBBrown1968 @Starik @class80olddog By the time today's kids look for jobs most of the McDonald's jobs will be automated.  Order and pay by a computer terminal; one or two employees to run the cooking machine and deliver the food, and a cleanup person after closing.  Anybody can mop a floor.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@class80olddog What you people fail to grasp! This is not 1950 or 60. We have been at war for years and these kids have no idea. The music is crude. The television is graphic. Video games are a mess and you think these kids care. I am old as dust, you must be minutes from death! Please go to the nearest high school and get a dose of reality.

class80olddog
class80olddog

If you allow parents to "opt out" of having their child take a minimum competency test, how would you have any idea if that child had mastered any of the subject matter?  Teachers' grades?  Don't make me laugh!  As Wascatlady says, teachers are told to give a student an "A" if the student is breathing (attendance not required).

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Starik @class80olddog I think we could improve it even more by giving diplomas to any who verbally request a diploma (they would not even have to use proper English in their request).

Smart
Smart

The problem is neither of you have clue about schools. I challenge you to volunteer in your schools before you make comments. That is if you're man enough.

Starik
Starik

@Smart I've put a bunch of kids through schools, DeKalb and now Fulton.  There's no comparison,

Starik
Starik

Are the public schools becoming entirely worthless?  We seem to be protecting teachers from being evaluated by any objective standard - and protecting the kids from worrying about their performance on even the least difficult of tests.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Starik Public schools certainly have gone downhill in the past forty years ( I don't classify them as worthless).  A large part of that downhill slide IS protecting kids from the responsibility for their performance (give every kid a trophy).  As far as teachers, I am in favor of evaluating teachers to an objective standard if one can be found.  However, I would evaluate teachers on their TEACHING, not on their students' LEARNING.  That are a lot of things that affect a student's learning, primary of those is attendance.  Teachers should be evaluated on: knowledge of subject matter, and ability to communicate that subject matter.  Knowledge is easily measured by a test of the subject matter (the fly in the ointment is that if you require a minimum test score, what happens when there are no teachers who pass that test score that want to teach in your hell-hole school). 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Starik @class80olddog It used to be Praxis I and Praxis II (help me out teachers - I don't know what they require now).  I don't know what minimum score they require for passing, nor what that score equates to. They SHOULD require that all teachers scores on their tests be on a public website.  Then you could see what the scores are for teachers in your school. 

Starik
Starik

@class80olddog @Starik There was a piece on WSBTV a year or so ago that indicated that a number of DeKalb teachers took the Praxis repeatedly until they finally passed.  I didn't want teachers like this "teaching" my kids. I moved.

jerryeads
jerryeads

@class80olddog @Starik  In Georgia, the teacher licensing agency (Professional Standards Commission, or GaPSC) has had ETS develop competency tests (NOT the Praxis) for its own criteria, known as the Georgia Assessment for the Certification of Educators (GACE). They are minimum competency tests developed for each specialty. While I agree wholeheartedly that to be certified a teacher should know their field, there are no data whatsoever on these tests that tries to determine whether a certain level of test competency bears any relationship to competency in teaching. The PSC has also added a recently developed but already widely used performance assessment for certification, the EdTPA, produced by Pearson. We hope, but do not yet know, that these assessments will help us provide stronger teachers to the schools.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Starik @class80olddog Good for you.  But your story about DeKalb teachers taking many tries to pass the Praxis illustrates my point elsewhere.  You don't have a lot of top teachers wanting to get to teach in DeKalb (for good reason).

Starik
Starik

@dg417s @Starik @class80olddog The quality problem isn't universal, of course. Mary Elizabeth Sings came from DeKalb, and I'd bet she was a good teacher.  I met some excellent teachers in DeKalb. Try this one: a teacher at the high school level gets chewed out for pointing out to the teacher that The Battle of Waterloo did not happen in Russia.  Too many bad ones in the mix.

Starik
Starik

@jerryeads @class80olddog @Starik At the high school level a teacher can't teach adequately without knowing the subject they're teaching, and at a level above minimum competency.


In the lower grades a teacher must speak standard English, know correct grammar, spelling and other basics in order to teach the kids. 


Do you agree?  Or should we simply adjust the rules to accommodate conversations like "Who dat is?... my babydaddy!"

dg417s
dg417s

@Starik @class80olddog Please don't group all DeKalb teachers into one lump. I actually earned a special recognition for scoring in the top 15% on the PRAXIS and teach (quite happily) in south DeKalb. Most of the teachers at my school are extremely competent too. 

Smart
Smart

Teachers have been evaluated for at least the past ten years. I have seen 4 teachers removed from their position at the Christmas break. The real reason behind this is getting money in the hands of private corporations. 40% of my students missed more than 20 days of school last year. The current system blames me for the juvenile courts for not doing their job.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog @Starik There was one before Praxis. I think it was called the Teacher Certification Test.  It came along after I had been teaching awhile, but I took it anyway.  It was extremely easy.  I literally finished in 15 minutes, then waited for someone else to finish (so I would not be the first one up). Finally 20 minutes or so in someone raised their hand so I raised mine and the proctor was very surprised ( You're FINISHED?).  Turns out the other person had asked to go to the bathroom.  Anyway, I missed one question (wasn't sure about 3 of them--all Georgia history that I had never studied)  


My daughter told me the Praxis was easy, but I never did it or the GACE

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@class80olddog @Starik Higher knowledge requirements/testing standards equates to higher pay for the teaching workforce. The state could do this by requiring a certain high percent be spent in the classroom. They will not do this because the profiteers want access to as much of the education money as possible.

FredinDeKalb
FredinDeKalb

@class80olddog @Starik 

For someone that did not live in DeKalb, you frequently reference the Central Office size along with *friends and family*.I know you got this from a blog that is no longer active.In the beginning, this blog did point out issues that needed attention however towards the end, it *jumped the shark* and began to share *out of context* information as though it was the truth.I hope after providing correct information, you will cease using those references regarding DeKalb County Schools.



The Central office grew under the Dr. Robert Freeman, who was the superintendent from 1978 to 1996.He subdivided the district into areas and promoted several school house employees to serve on instructional teams.When he realized this did not accomplish what he had hope, he along with the following superintendent, Dr. Hallford, did not return the employees back to the school house.Dr. Brown followed Dr. Hallford and attempted to *rightsize* the Central office.You can say there was a mini *coup* involving employees and citizens that did not want to see this happen, that ultimately resulted in a mutual separation.



Dr. Freeman also encouraged what is now known as *friends and family* though that other blog tried to say in occurred with superintendents after Hallford.It was used as a *code word* by that blog but the reality is that this has always exited in DeKalb and the South under a different name, the *good ole boys network*.Unfortunately the major media picked up on that term also, not knowing the origin and despite others like me pointing out what that blog was inferring.It took an interview with Dr. Freeman a few years ago to acknowledge that he introduced this but the inference behind this remained.



I along with many in the community believe that Dr. Freeman was a *great* superintendent.He believed his recommendation in creating the instructional teams would ultimately help with student learning.He also believed employees would recommend good acquaintances they knew, be they family or friends.This similar to a strategy used in the business world that can save on referral fees.It was also something that Jim Cherry had done with much success.It is done in every school system in this country.You would probably be surprised to learn of the many connections, especially in smaller school systems.Would you provide a reference for someone you didn’t think could do the job?



I hope sharing this history causes you to reconsider your comments on the DeKalb Schools Central office and use of *friends and family*.For many it won’t because they believe they can get a *rise* out of others in making those comments.

newsjunkie523
newsjunkie523

@class80olddog @Starik Schools are a direct reflection of the families and community around it. Teachers have to teach students at the level they present with. An environment where education is not valued ,creates a child who doesn't value education.  Again, there are no failing schools, failing families and communities.

jerryeads
jerryeads

Let's get one thing straight. The state tests are nothing more than low-bid minimum competency tests. Even some of the best-made tests in the world - the SAT and ACT - are virtually useless at the SOLE task they're intended for: predicting first-year college survival. No one even ASKS the question what the junk the state contracts is actually good for. The tests can't even do a decent job of predicting individual student success.They have never been designed for, were not intended to, and cannot in even one's wildest nightmares effectively evaluate teacher competence.

I'm ecstatic that Ligon has taken Gyorgyi's and Norris' work to heart. I read the bill: somebody did their homework - it includes reference to the overwhelming barrage of research that finds such tests junk, and are found to be absolutely useless at assessing teacher competence. 

The best way to undo all this waste would be for parents to catch on as they have in New York. It's certainly likely that parents of more academically successful kids will be more aware than others. If even 10% of high performing kids were to be allowed by their parents to "opt out," the in any case virtually useless data from the tests would be rendered completely unusable. As the former head of state testing for another state (Virginia), works for me. The travesty of incompetent state "competency" testing has gone on far too long.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@jerryeads I disagree that the SAT and the ACT are worthless for their function.  Do you really think that a person who makes a 1400 (old scoring) is going to do worse, on the average, than a person who scores 900?

jerryeads
jerryeads

@class80olddog @jerryeads  Look at the slope of the SAT scores vs. GPA. Then look at the variance (the scatter of the dots above and below the line). Yeah, over a couple hundred thousand kids, ON AVERAGE, the kid with the 1400 is a bit more likely to have a higher GPA than the kid with a1000. But just a bit, and a tiny one at that. The PURPOSE of the tests is to predict first year survival on an INDIVIDUAL basis. I trust you're enough of a statistician to look at the graph you provided and realize that for that purpose, it's virtually useless.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@jerryeads @class80olddog So if there is no validity - why do most schools use standardized test scores to a large extent?  (and I see a lot of correlation in that graph - I also see that the graph doesn't extend below SAT score 1000).

jerryeads
jerryeads

@class80olddog @jerryeads Ah, so you don't have statistics or measurement training. Come on out and maybe in a semester I can help you begin to understand some of the issues. No point even trying here.

Another comment
Another comment

I the trailer park kid, the child of a highschool dropout mother who scored a 1100 on the old SAT vs my best friend in college who scored 1500 but was the daughter of a High School Principal in Suburban Conn. Is the reason the SAT is not an end all accurate prediction model. It bugged the crap out of Jane that someone who scored so much lower than her on the SAT had the higher college GPA then her. She openly complained to mutual friends about this. I graduated 5 th in our class and she 6th. She did not understand that SAT scores are influenced by household income, test prep, etc.. I took the SAT cold and only one time. How much prep and couching do you think a top Conn. High School Principals daughter had. I can guarantee a lot.

I have made it my mission to mentor other kids like me. Not everyone has the parents who are supportive or even know what test prep is.