OPINION: Someone should remind state school board we’re in a pandemic

The state Board of Education is debating whether to count state exam scores toward final grades in core high school classes.  The board votes on the issue Thursday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
The state Board of Education is debating whether to count state exam scores toward final grades in core high school classes. The board votes on the issue Thursday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Today’s lengthy and emotional state Board of Education debate over whether to count state exam scores toward final grades in core high school classes surprised me. It seems a small concession to a deadly pandemic that delayed the start of school by weeks in many districts, caused some to resort to online classes and still compels rolling closures in many others as infections spike.

The Milestones tests normally count for 20% of the high school grades in English, math, science and social studies. Superintendent Richard Woods asked the board last month to weight the tests at 0.01% of a course grade -- essentially zero. Students would still take the exams; the state just would not mandate that the scores inform grades.

The board rebuffed Woods, setting the weight at 10% but putting the question to the public in a survey and holding off on a final vote until Thursday. (I will watch meeting and update this commentary with final vote.)

Considering the massive and continued disruptions to schooling, Woods was seeking to halt use the scores in grading this year, not forever. “Kids are in and out of quarantine,’' he told the board. “I was supposed to visit Walker County this week. They shut down. I was supposed to visit Cook County Friday. They shut down. We are trying to look at this to be equitable and fair and provide some stability.”

Some board members treated Woods’ recommendation as a risky retreat from accountability. “One simple thing I have learned in life, in business, what gets measured gets done. People apply themselves if they are being held to a standard,” said board member Scott Johnson.

Others discounted the results of a state Department of Education survey in which close to nine out of 10 of the 93,079 respondents supported Woods’ proposal.

Those board members suggested the survey was designed in its language and outreach to produce those results, a bizarre notion given the online query put three possibilities before Georgians in plain language. Should state exams count 20%, 10% or 0.01%?

Here is the question asked of Georgians, 93,000 of whom responded.
Here is the question asked of Georgians, 93,000 of whom responded.

Georgia has to give the Milestones; U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declined to waive the federal requirement for high-stakes exams, which means summoning students back to schools, even those whose families chose virtual learning for them or who attend schools that remain online only.

“The biggest concern, for me, among all of this, is the situation where we still have thousands and tens of thousands of students who are doing remote instruction whether it’s because their district isn’t open, because they’re quarantined, or because they choose to do that. And as long as the EOC continues to carry some percentage of student grades, we are asking them to make a decision between their health and their grade,” said Allison Timberlake, DOE deputy superintendent of assessment and accountability.

Woods argued the integrity of grades would not be diminished by relying on teachers and teacher-created tests. “My belief is in teachers of the state of Georgia, not a test given once a year, but in these teachers who deal with these children every day,” he said.

But state school board member Trey Allen said the 10% weight represented a fair compromise between the 20% now in place and the 0.01% sought by Woods. Yes, the parents, educators and administrators overwhelmingly supported the 0.01% in the survey, but Allen quoted 18th century statesman Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

I would suggest Allen consider another quote from Burke: “I have nothing to do here with the abstract value of the voice of the people. But as long as reputation, the most precious possession of every individual, and as long as opinion, the great support of the state, depend entirely upon that voice, it can never be considered as a thing of little consequence either to individuals or to governments.”

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