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Gwinnett teachers offer opinions on testing changes

SUWANEE — It’s not the test, Gwinnett teachers said. The curriculum, and how it’s taught, is what matters.

As state education leaders discuss, and possibly choose, a statewide assessment in the coming months, several Gwinnett teachers said the way kids learn is most important.

Two weeks ago, Georgia Department of Education officials withdrew from a group of 22 states that had joined together to develop the next generation of standardized test. Citing cost concerns — more than $10 per student than what the state currently spends — the state withdrew from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which costs $29.50 per student for computer-based administration of the test.

Instead, the state plans to create standardized tests aligned with the state’s academic standards in math and English language arts, and could make a custom test from products already on the market.

Mitchell Chester, head of the PARCC governing board, and is Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts, said keeping cost low was not a priority of PARCC. In an interview with National Public Radio, Chester said he doesn’t think Georgia can find a cheaper alternative to the test.

“I think any state going off on its own in trying to come up with the same quality assessment that PARCC is generating has a tall order to meet there,” Chester said.

Yet Georgia isn’t the only one to withdraw. The group of states, originally 22, has dwindled following the reported withdrawal of Florida, Alabama, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. That’s why State Superintendent John Barge said the national comparisons that were part of the PARCC sales pitch were impossible since less than half of the states participated.

Barge has said the new tests would be similar to the PARCC tests, and have the same level of difficulty and complexity. Barge has also said not being tied to PARCC offers more flexibility to teach Common Core standards.

For Central Gwinnett High chemistry teacher Karla Dickerson, and other Gwinnett County Public Schools teachers, the nuances of a particular test are not a priority.

“You teach what you’re supposed to teach,” Dickerson said. “You teach the curriculum, and then the students can succeed no matter what the test is put before them.”

More than 4,000 teachers in Gwinnett County Public Schools this summer participated in staff development courses that taught Academic Knowledge and Skills curriculum that’s aligned with Common Core standards in math and language arts. While an immediate reaction to the PARCC withdraw was a fear that pre-planning activities would wipe out what was learned this summer, or feature meetings to learn new curriculum, GCPS spokesman Jorge Quintana said that wasn’t the case.

Hunter Marshburn, a Duluth Middle social studies teacher, concurred.

“Our goals are obviously going to be the same, the end result is going to be the same,” Marshburn said. “Gwinnett County has always had the highest levels of assessment anyways. I don’t see it having much of a change or influence at all, in the way these kids learn. It’s definitely not going to have an affect on the way we teach them. The standards are going to be the same.”

Barge has indicated that the bubble-in, multiple-choice tests could be replaced by an answer sheet where students write out answers. That’s welcome news for Duluth Middle teacher Will Hilderbrand, who teaches gifted sixth grade social studies. Hilderbrand said he enjoys reading a student’s writing style, even handwriting.

“Most assessments are multiple choice, but I don’t think all tests should be, because life is not a multiple choice answer,” Hilderbrand said. “You’ve got to add essays and explanations to things.”