Parents Battle Georgia County Test

K-12 Testing

by Lisa Amspaugh, Concerned Parents of Gwinnett


Parent opposition to the new Gwinnett County, Georgia, “Gateway” exams has put school officials on the defensive and led to changes in how the tests are used. Originally, students were required to pass the district-mandated test at grades 4, 7 and 10 to be promoted for the fall of 2000. Parent protests forced the district to review the placement of each child who did not pass the exam but had no grade lower than a “C.” However, county officials are continuing their effort to implement a stringent high-stakes testing program.


Gwinnett County, located in the suburbs of Atlanta, is the largest school system in Georgia, with over 105,000 children. Children in Gwinnett test well above average on every state and national standardized test, causing many parents to question why this testing system has been implemented to “raise standards.”


Although the school system had been quietly planning the use of the Gateway for over four years, the high-stakes nature of the exam was unknown to parents until last fall. Then one parent, Lisa Amspaugh, began asking questions, using her rights under Georgia’s Open Records law. Originally denied any details about the impending program, she found that officials had intentionally misled the public about the test’s high-stakes nature and had engaged in a questionable bidding process for the exam.


Amspaugh also uncovered evidence of a plan to segregate children failing Gateway in alternative schools and data indicating that the pilot tests had a 75% failure rate.


Developed for Gwinnett by CTB/McGraw Hill, Gateway is a “world-class standards” exam: All children are expected to perform at “world-class” levels or be retained. The test is mostly multiple-choice in grades 4 and 7, and all essay in grade 10. In the 5th and 8th grades, Gwinnett uses the state writing test as a “Gateway” exam: students must pass to be promoted. All Georgia high school students must pass a state graduation exam to earn a diploma.


One college professor who took the 4th grade sample test scored a 77 out of 100. The school board admitted that all items on the exam will not have been covered by test time. Students who are not English proficient and Special Education students are also required to take and pass Gateway using the same standards.


Opposition develops
Opposition to Gateway grew quickly after parents plastered informational flyers across the county. Over 700 people attended the October 1999 school board meeting, at which board members refused to answer detailed questions about the testing program.


The opposition incorporated as CPOG, Concerned Parents of Gwinnett. One of the weapons CPOG found most effective was a website. Flyers provided basic information and the website address. The website contained links to testing research, quotes from documents obtained using Open Records laws, contact information for protesting to the school board, a way to email directly to the group’s leader, and perhaps most important of all, a message board for sharing information. The website received over 30,000 hits in just 45 days.


The message board encouraged people inside the school system who were afraid to speak publicly to provide information to CPOG. It allowed leaders to call a meeting at a moment’s notice without the need for a phone chain. The public was instructed to check in once a day and read “messages from the Leader” to see if there was picketing, a last minute unpublicized meeting called by the school board, or help needed.


County Changes
CPOG has forced changes in the testing policy, including implementation of the mandatory review of students’ grades. However, CPOG has little hope this will be a fair process, as all reviews are to be conducted by a hand-picked committee which will never have seen the child and will use only other standardized test scores and grades to make the final decision. CPOG believes that every review will simply result in the recommendation, “Retake Gateway.” CPOG also believes the test will drive limited English proficiency children from the district, as many will not pass the test.


Because of public alarm over the high failure rate on the first two pilots, the passing “cut” scores were lowered to 23% correct on one exam (a bit higher on others), which is below the chance (random guessing) level on the four-option multiple-choice tests. In the end, 3.1% of fourth-graders and 1.8% of seventh-graders failed the first year’s Gateway. CPOG fears that the County plans to gain acceptance for high-stakes test use, then steadily raise the passing score in order to achieve its underlying agenda.


CPOG also wonders why four years of test development took place without planning remediation for failing students, if as the school board claims, helping children falling through the cracks was the main goal of this test. Only in February were principals told to develop remediation plans for their schools.


School Board Fights Back
The school board’s tactics of misinformation and manipulation have worked to some extent. Many parents who originally demonstrated against Gateway viewed the institution of the review process as a victory. The lowering of the cut scores is designed to further ease public concern and to establish legal precedent to use the test to determine promotion before the scores are raised.


Teachers’ concerns have been ignored, in part because they are afraid to come forward. Georgia lacks strong teachers’ unions, and educators operate in an atmosphere of “veiled threats,” denied even the chance to tell parents their real opinions.


The board’s determination did not falter even in the face of a security breach. Two days before the first scheduled administration of the test, someone sent a copy of the fourth grade exam to many media outlets. Still, the school board refused to alter the high-stakes nature of the exams. The district has used the security breach as an excuse to harass CPOG leaders, though police acknowledge that no one from outside the schools could have taken the test.


Despite the attacks, CPOG continues in its efforts to change the district’s testing policies. In addition, members have collaborated with other groups of parents around the nation, sharing in particular their knowledge in quickly educating and mobilizing thousands of parents around high-stakes testing.


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