Sunday February 14th, 2016 6:23PM

Ga. faces tight deadline for new student tests

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA - Six months after Georgia withdrew from a group of states developing standardized tests aligned with the Common Core standards, state education officials say they are hoping to start the process soon of selecting a company to create the tests.

Georgia faces a tight deadline to get the assessments in place for the next academic school year, and the department's progress is being closely watched by Gov. Nathan Deal, who says he's concerned Georgia isn't as far along in the process as it should be. This week, Deal proposed $10 million be added to the department's budget for developing the new tests.

``The clock is ticking, very much so, and I have expressed my concern that that is not moving as fast as I think it should,'' Deal said in a recent interview. ``And I would hope that even though this is an election year, that that effort would not be abandoned by the Department of Education and its staff.''

It's no surprise education is a hot topic this year. Deal is seeking re-election and one of his Republican primary challengers is state schools Superintendent John Barge, who oversees the education department and has been sharply critical of the governor. Barge, along with the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Jason Carter, have argued the governor hasn't done enough to fund public education since taking office in 2010.

On student tests, Georgia in July withdrew from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, an 18-state consortium working to develop a common set of K-12 tests in math and English. At the time, Deal and Barge said they were concerned the costs associated with those tests were too high, estimated at nearly three times higher than what the state currently spends per student on standardized tests.

Also looming is a state Board of Education review, ordered by the governor, of the Common Core standards. The standards create basic requirements for math and English language arts and have been under fire from conservative and tea party groups who say they amount to federal intrusion and usurp local control.

Although the federal government hasn't been involved in creating the standards, it has encouraged states to adopt them through its Race to the Top grants. And there is an effort in the General Assembly calling for Georgia to drop the standards altogether.

The result of either of those efforts could substantially affect what the new tests will look like. But for now the plan is to release a bid next month and make a decision on a vendor by June. State education officials have been holding separate talks with Kentucky and Florida, which are further along than Georgia, on the possibility of sharing test elements made possible with the common standards. It's even possible Georgia could purchase Florida's test.

Overall, Barge said the new tests will be better aligned across grades 3 through 12 and rely less on multiple choice. By adding in writing components, the department hopes to eliminate at least four other state tests in the process.

Barge said the governor hasn't expressed any concerns to him about the process, although the two have not spoken much in the past few years. Barge had requested $12 million for developing the new tests, but said he felt the department could work under the $10 million proposed by the governor.

``I do think some of the rhetoric has been kicked up just by my candidacy,'' Barge said this week. ``And frankly some of that is the whole reason why I am running. We have got to be committed wholly to public education in this state.''

When asked why the state wasn't further along in the process, Melissa Fincher, associate superintendent for assessment accountability, said her budget only covers the administration of this year's tests and there were no additional funds available.

``By law, you cannot procure what you can't pay for and so we had to wait for the fiscal year 2015 budget,'' Fincher said. ``The indication was that there were no funds. We would have loved to have had more money earlier.''

Rep. Brooks Coleman, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he planned to meet next week with education department officials for a testing update.

``I'm concerned about the speed,'' said Coleman, R-Duluth. ``We need to speed it up a little bit, get a timeline of what we need, what we have, the gap and the overlap.''
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