State OKs spending on Georgia Milestones as it tries to cancel testing

    The state Board of Education is preparing to spend $7.5 million on Georgia Milestones but hoping a federal testing waiver comes through before the money is gone Getty Images.

    Georgia students appear headed to their second school year in a row without high-stakes testing, but the Georgia Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to spend up to $7.5 million to pay the company that develops Georgia Milestones while a request to kill the test for another year is pending.

    Gov. Brian Kemp and Superintendent Richard Woods are trying to get permission once more to waive federal standardized testing requirements. The state secured a similar waiver in March for the last school year, the same day Kemp temporarily shut down the state’s public schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos approved the request soon afterward.

    Georgia is legally required to plan to test as usual pending a decision on the waiver application, but a quick approval could save millions for Georgia schools, said Deputy Superintendent for Assessment and Accountability Allison Timberlake.

    “The contract will cover the work taking place between tomorrow, July 1, and Oct. 31,” Timberlake said Wednesday. “Assuming we hear from the U.S. Department of Education earlier, approving that waiver, we would stop work, we would only pay for the work that’s completed.”

    The money pays for preparing end-of-course assessments, which some students take early to allow them to skip some material, Timberlake said. The “vast majority” of the work can be reused for future students, she said.

    Any remaining portion of the $7.5 million allocated would return to the department at a time when K-12 education is facing massive austerity and bearing the brunt of the state’s $2.2 billion budget cut.

    In the 2018-2019 school year, the school board budgeted nearly $26 million to Georgia Milestones, and over 1.5 million Georgia students took the test. Last school year, the board paid just under $20 million, and fewer than 200,000 students were tested.

    Instead of Milestones, Georgia schools can choose to administer a low-stakes math and English test called BEACON, which Woods said will allow schools to see which students are falling behind. Unlike Milestones, it will not factor into teacher or school assessments.

    “BEACON is something any school can use, there’s no charge to them as well,” Woods said. “But if they want to use something else that they have used in the past, they are still free to do that as well, but I think this is a very equitable program that is aligned with the Milestones.”

    Before Georgia can officially submit its testing waiver, officials must first offer a public comment period. That began Monday, with a survey posted online. By Tuesday afternoon, the public posted more than 55,000 responses, Woods said.

    The survey is set to close at midnight, July 10. Woods said he hopes the U.S. Department of Education will approve the state’s waiver quickly.

    “Very shortly after that period in time, we will be able to officially submit our waiver,” he said. “If their response is like in March, it is a possibility we could end Milestones testing this year and know that sometime in July.”

    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.