Georgia school board, for now, reverses course on impact of Milestones tests

Students won’t get firm answer on score weight prior to fall tests
State Board of Education members reversed course Thursday and decided to reduce the impact of the Georgia Milestones tests. A vote on the measure is scheduled for December.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

State Board of Education members reversed course Thursday and decided to reduce the impact of the Georgia Milestones tests. A vote on the measure is scheduled for December.

The Georgia Board of Education reversed course Thursday, voting to nearly eliminate the weight of Milestones scores on the grades of students in the four high school courses where the tests will be given.

The board has debated what to do about the end of course tests this school year in several meetings over the past two months, and will meet again during Christmas week for a final emergency vote. The current proposal all but strips the tests of their impact on students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Until the final vote, though, the scores will still count for a fifth of course grades, enough to alter grade point averages and chances for college admissions and scholarships.

So thousands of students will not know the outcome before their test dates this fall.

Last month, Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods proposed to strip the tests of their influence on course grades, but the board balked, choosing instead to reduce their effect but only by half.

That vote triggered a 30-day public comment period. The results of the Georgia Department of Education’s online poll showed that about 86% of the 93,079 respondents supported Woods’ proposal to set the weights at 0.01% of the grades for Algebra, U.S. history, biology and American literature and composition, the four tested subjects typically taken in high school and in some cases by advanced students in middle school.

The board rejected Woods’ proposal by an 8-4 vote in October, but on Thursday several members reversed themselves, and a vote that was supposed to ratify the 10% weight they had previously approved was amended to reduce the weight to 0.01% instead. It passed 10-3, but is not final, leaving the 20% standard weight in place if this new measure does not gain final approval next month.

Two of the three board members who changed their minds — Helen Odom Rice and Lee Anne Cowart — referred calls for comment to board chairman Scott Sweeney. He said they switched their votes based on “the full breadth of information presented” this week. He could not guarantee they would not change their minds again, but the third board member who did, Mike Long, said he was confident the measure will pass in December.

Long said he still wants the tests taken seriously but was moved by his discussions and emails with 51 school superintendents. The pandemic has students on edge, he said. “I’m very concerned about our teachers’ mental health as well.”

Long said he also heard quite a bit about his October vote when he shared the news with his wife, who teaches eighth grade, with more than half her students online. “I got it out of my mouth, and all I did after that was listen,” he said.

During the meeting, board member Scott Johnson worried that few would take a test without consequences seriously and that the results would therefore be unhelpful in determining the toll of the disruptions during this school year and last.

“We need that information. Parents need that information,” he said. “The data from testing is crucially important in any year but it is exponentially important information this year.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said in a written statement that the additional 30-day comment period on the proposed lower test weight ”gives our school systems the flexibility they need to make the best decisions for their students during these unprecedented times.”

There are 98,123 students scheduled to sit for their Milestones exams during the winter testing window, which starts Nov. 30 and ends Jan. 6, according to Allison Timberlake, the deputy state superintendent who oversees the testing process. They are in 134 school districts, and all but one of those districts are scheduled to end testing before the Dec. 21 board vote.

The federally-mandated tests are administered online. However, because they must be proctored, they generally must be taken at school.

The law allows students to refuse to take the tests, but the effect on grades is an inducement. That could mean a difficult decision for students attending school online to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“For those who are medically fragile children, the decision could be more far-reaching,” Woods said.

Kimberly Eklund hopes the school board ultimately reduces the weight to near zero. Her daughter, 9, has viral-induced asthma, so she and her 15-year-old brother, a sophomore, have been attending Forsyth County Schools online to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“If she catches this, it could end her life,” Eklund said. Meanwhile, her son is in advanced classes and has already risked exposure to take the PSAT. “But I don’t want him going to take anything else, especially not sitting in a classroom that long with so many other students,” she said, adding, “He wants to be an astrophysicist, so this is a big deal for him.”

Have your say

Public comment will be taken by email until Dec. 16 at; by telephone until Dec. 16 at 800-311-3627; or by letter mailed by Dec. 14 to Rules Comments, Policy Division, Georgia Department of Education, 2053 Twin Towers East, 205 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, S.E., Atlanta, Georgia 30334.