Testing widens rift between governor and state school chief

I was off most of last week, but wanted to discuss the push by Richard Woods, state school superintendent, to take advantage of the testing flexibility built into the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind.

Woods is pressing ahead despite a growing rift with Gov. Nathan Deal over how Georgia schools should be held accountable for student performance and the appropriate weight of testing in the calculation. The governor has never been a fan of the state school superintendent, and the two men seldom present a united front, but the chill between them has now become a hard freeze as a result of their dispute over how to satisfy the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Enacted in 2015, ESSA grants states more autonomy in how they hold schools accountable and allows them to back away from No Child's intense reliance on test scores. ESSA still mandates testing. States must test students in reading and math each year in grades 3-8 and once in grades 10-12, and in science once in each of the following grade spans: 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12.  (Georgia law still requires more than the minimum federal level of testing, which was a concern of many of the parents and teachers who provided feedback on the state's ESSA plan.)

But the results of those tests are not as consequential to a school's standing as they were under NCLB. States can now cite other evidence of student achievement and school quality, including student engagement, career and college readiness, school climate, reduced absenteeism and increased participation in Advanced Placement courses.

Gov. Deal opposes a retreat from test scores as a critical determinant of school performance, and he is now in open disagreement with Woods. Deal refused to sign off on the ESSA plan Georgia submitted to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos two weeks ago, declaring in a letter to Woods that the plan fell "short in setting high expectations for Georgia students and schools." Woods countered that some of Deal's recommendations would return Georgia to a culture of "measure, pressure, and punish."

Deal is not alone in his fears Georgia may be moving to a less ambitious accountability system that gives schools a pass. In its review of the ESSA blueprint, the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education cautioned the performance of poor children, minorities, immigrants and other under-performing "subgroups" could be downplayed in the state scoring system.

"Georgia has set the expectation that all children will graduate high school ready for college and career, " wrote GPEE president Stephen Dolinger. "We believe the long-term academic achievement goals set forth in this plan are not ambitious enough for all children to achieve that goal."

As my AJC colleague Ty Tagami reported out of Thursday's state Board of Education meeting:

One Georgia Board of Education member said the conflict between Deal and Woods is a terrible sign for the state's public schools. "Ignoring the input of our governor to the ESSA plan to the point where he did not sign it is not how one moves education forward, " said board member Larry Winter, from North Georgia.

At Thursday's board meeting, Winter had strong criticism for Woods' leadership of Georgia's education department. Woods sent the plan to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Sept. 18, the same day as Deal's letter.

It's unclear what recourse Deal has, but he promised to pull one lever within reach: Deal explained in his letter to Woods that he was refusing to sign the plan because he disagreed with it, and added, "I will communicate as much to Secretary DeVos."

Woods said the plan was crafted with the input of thousands of Georgians, including the governor. "Everybody had an equal voice, " he said.

But Winter said the governor's voice should be considered as "a little bit louder."

The question now is whether Secretary DeVos will heed Deal or Woods. In the meantime, Woods is pressing ahead with his belief Georgia should innovate its testing models, as permitted under ESSA.

Here is the release from the state Department of Education on a new task force to examine testing:

In accordance with Georgia’s submitted state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act  and in line with recommendations from Georgia’s Assessment Working Committee, State School Superintendent Richard Woods is establishing an Assessment Innovation and Flexibility Task Force and an Assessment Innovation Fund.

And today, Superintendent Woods sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expressing Georgia’s intent to apply for the U.S. Department of Education’s Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority, which allows state education agencies to pilot innovative assessments for accountability and reporting purposes, with the intent of scaling these innovative assessments statewide.

“The model of standardized testing that arose during the No Child Left Behind years – end-of-year summative assessments that provide a one-day snapshot too late for teachers to provide remediation – is not working for our kids,” Superintendent Woods said. “Georgia has a real opportunity, working with innovative leaders in our local school districts who are at the forefront of these efforts, to change the way testing works in our public schools. We have an opportunity to build a model of assessment that is focused where it should be – on student learning. ESSA provides new opportunities for flexibility from the restrictive federal guidelines that govern testing in K-12 schools, and Georgia will aggressively pursue that flexibility for the benefit of our students.”

The Assessment Innovation and Flexibility Task Force will:

  • Examine and develop recommendations for Georgia to take advantage of the flexibility afforded under ESSA and other federal law
  • Learn about and develop best practices based on the assessment innovation and flexibility being pursued and utilized in other states
  • Apply for and provide oversight for Georgia’s participation in the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority
  • Develop recommendations and an implementation plan for competency-based and interim assessments of student learning
  • Adhere to the requirements and principles set forth in Georgia’s Senate Bill 211

The Council of Chief State School Officers will assist in identifying an independent third-party facilitator for the Task Force’s meetings, and will provide additional expertise and insight on the assessment flexibility and innovation being pursued across the nation. Options for a facilitator will be presented to the State Board of Education and the State School Superintendent, with input from the Senate and House Education Committee Chairs.

The Assessment Innovation Fund will provide competitive grants to local school districts to assist in the creation of innovative assessment resources, tools, and systems. The fund will be established using existing Georgia Department of Education funds, and during Georgia’s upcoming legislative session Superintendent Woods will urge the Legislature to appropriate additional resources for the fund.

“Since participation in the federal Innovation Demonstration Authority yields only additional flexibility and not additional federal funding, I believe establishing this fund at the state level is essential to provide the necessary resources and support for our districts to ensure the success of this work,” Superintendent Woods said.

Members of Georgia’s Assessment Innovation and Flexibility Task Force

Members of the task force are representative local school districts and business/industry, policymakers, educators, and parents. The Superintendent’s student, parent, teacher, and superintendent advisory councils will also offer feedback and insight throughout the process.

  1. Fulton County Schools

  2. Gwinnett County Schools

  3. Henry County Schools

  4. Putnam County Schools

  5. Paulding County Schools

  6. Dublin City Schools

  7. Jackson County Schools

  8. Lowndes County Schools

  9. Marietta City Schools

  10. Newton County Schools

  11. Savannah-Chatham County Schools

  12. Charles R. Drew Charter School

  13. Georgia State Senate Education & Youth Committee Chair, or designee

  14. Georgia House of Representatives Education Committee Chair, or designee

  15. State Board of Education Member

  16. State Board of Education Member

  17. Designee of the Charter Systems Foundation

  18. Designee of the Georgia School Boards Association

  19. Designee of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders

  20. Designee of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education

  21. Designee of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce

  22. Designee of the University System of Georgia

  23. Designee of the Technical College System of Georgia

  24. President of Georgia’s Regional Educational Service Agencies (RESAs)

  25. Designee of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office

  26. Designee of the Governor’s Office

  27. Designee of the Georgia Parent Teacher Organization

  28. Designee of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators

  29. Designee of the Georgia Association of Educators

  30. Designee of the State Charter Schools Commission

  31. Dr. Lynn Plunkett, retired Superintendent of Floyd County Schools

  32. Dr. Melissa Fincher, Deputy Superintendent of Assessment and Accountability at the Georgia Department of Education

  33. Matt Jones, Chief of Staff at the Georgia Department of Education

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.