State schools’ chief moves to lower stakes of standardized test scores

Georgia Schools Superintendent Richard Woods talks with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during a September discussion about school reopenings at Forsyth Central High School. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The Georgia Milestones test that typically is a high stakes nailbiter could have a negligible effect on students’ final grades this year if State School Superintendent Richard Woods gets his way.

At the Oct. 1 school board meeting, Woods is set to call for the tests to count for .01% of students’ final grades for the school year, down from 20% in previous years. Under state law, the tests cannot carry zero weight in final grades.

Woods’ plan for this school year’s testing also includes a recommendation that schools not use students’ performance on the tests to determine whether or not they move to the next grade and offers increased flexibility about when tests are offered. Those two recommendations do not require the state school board to take action.

This spring, Georgia was one of the first states to apply for a testing waiver when the governor ordered classrooms around the state closed to contain the spread of COVID-19. That waiver was approved, but U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced at the start of September she would not accept further waivers from state education departments that wanted to opt out of testing during the pandemic.

Canceling testing would harm vulnerable students and eliminate valuable assessments teachers need to understand students’ specific knowledge gaps, DeVos said.

Woods’ move represents an effort to scale back the effect of that decision, which he called a disappointment that demonstrates “a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom.”

“I remain disappointed and disheartened by the federal directive to administer high-stakes tests in a pandemic,” Woods said in a statement. “Georgia will abide by federal law, but we are not going to layer additional stress and burden onto our students and teachers during this time. In this environment, these tests are not valid or reliable measures of academic progress or achievement, and we are taking all possible steps at the state level to reduce their high-stakes impact.”

The Georgia Association of Educators supports Woods’ action, said President Lisa Morgan, but she is also calling for the elimination of teacher evaluations based on the standardized tests.

That would require an executive order from Gov. Brian Kemp.

“We sincerely hope that Gov. Brian Kemp will waive (the Teacher Keys Effectiveness System) and (Leader Keys Effectiveness System) for the 2020-2021 school year as he did in March for the 2019-2020 school year,” Morgan said. “This action would not eliminate accountability for teachers and administrators, but rather promote shared accountability and mutual support amongst educators, families and the community to ensure students emerge from this crisis physically, socially, emotionally, and academically healthy.”

The governor’s current public health emergency authority allows for suspension of a statute in some circumstances, but only for the duration of the state of emergency.

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.