State school officials balked Thursday at approving steps that would wipe out the weighted grades for year-end tests amid the COVID-19 pandemic, choosing instead to cut those grade weights in half from their usual amount.
The push to water down the tests comes after State School Superintendent Richard Woods blasted the U.S. Department of Education for requiring the tests this school year, which he said would put extra pressure on students and teachers already struggling to keep up coursework with online classes and overhauled in-person learning environments.
Woods proposed reducing the grade weights of the annual Georgia Milestones tests to 0.01%, which is the lowest state law allows. Normally, the tests count 20% toward students’ final grades.
“Because we have so many learning platforms and approaches to learning this year, these tests will not mean anything as far as information,” Woods said Wednesday.
“I think it’s just unconscionable that we give a test,” he added. “But I have to give a test. We have to follow federal law.”
But the state Board of Education, which had to approve Woods’ proposal first, voted at a meeting Thursday to make the year-end tests count for 10%. That decision was made after several board members expressed concerns about gutting the tests entirely.
Board members will need to vote on the 10% grade-weight proposal again next month for it to take effect.
Mike Royal, who has served on the board for a decade, said he fears many students will slack off if the test does not count. He echoed several board members in wishing to split the difference and support 10% grade weights.
“I’m not ready to give up on this year,” Royal said.
Another member, Trey Allen, disagreed with Woods that the test would be useless in terms of comparing results year over year for student performance assessment. He also questioned whether allowing students to essentially blow off a test would be the right message to send.
“I think we need a snapshot of this moment in time to see where we are,” Allen said.
Others backed Woods’ proposal, noting poor grades prompted by the unprecedented learning environments caused by the virus could hurt students’ scholarship chances and potential future work opportunities.
“Personally, I have a real difficult time holding students accountable [and] holding teachers accountable for this compromised learning environment,” said the board’s chair, Scott Sweeney.
The issue stems from a letter sent Sept. 3, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in which she told Georgia school officials they “should not anticipate” receiving approval to scrap the annual assessments this year, citing the need to maintain performance standards and data-tracking for student achievement.
Georgia officials submitted the testing waiver request in June to abstain from year-end tests as the state’s roughly 2,800 public schools grapple with resuming classes online and in-person amid the virus. The waiver request drew broad support from students, parents, teachers and other Georgians who were recently surveyed.
Many state and local school officials have argued the tests not only add extra stress to the current virus-impacted school year, but also require Georgia to spend millions of dollars to administer the tests at a time when school budgets are being slashed due to the economic downturn.
The state board approved a $17.3-million contract Thursday related to preparing the tests through the end of March 2021. Officials will have to request more funding from state lawmakers to spend even more money on the tests after March.
Prior to the board’s vote, superintendents from several local school districts turned out for Thursday’s board meeting to voice their support for gutting the year-end tests.
Morcease Beasley, the superintendent at Clayton County Schools, says his district’s roughly 55,000 students are feeling the strain after months of online learning and could use a break from the normal stress of the tests.
“We’re at a point where I just want kids to focus on learning,” Beasley said. “That’s really where my heart is for our community.”
Some educators who spoke Thursday said the tests may not even cover what students have been learning in class this year, given the challenges of matching every student with an equal virtual learning experience.
“We feel right now the last thing we need to be focusing on is accountability and assessment,” said Kelli Kendrick, chief academic officer at Calhoun City Schools. “We need to make sure that we’re maximizing our instruction and focusing on what matters.”
Others like Mary Lyn Huffman, whose son is a senior at Marietta High School, argued forcing students to take tests that may involve material they have not been taught could drive down Georgia’s overall achievement scores and jeopardize scholarship opportunities.
“I would slow this train down,” Huffman said.