School chief: We won’t let federal testing decision harm health, safety of Georgia students

In response to federal call for states to proceed with testing this year, Georgia school chief Richard Woods said: "I completely disagree with this decision, and believe it shows the continued disconnect between Washington, D.C. and the realities of the classroom. At this point, our focus is on ensuring this disheartening decision does not harm the health and safety of any Georgia student." KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
In response to federal call for states to proceed with testing this year, Georgia school chief Richard Woods said: "I completely disagree with this decision, and believe it shows the continued disconnect between Washington, D.C. and the realities of the classroom. At this point, our focus is on ensuring this disheartening decision does not harm the health and safety of any Georgia student." KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Credit: Alan Judd

Credit: Alan Judd

Richard Woods says schools shouldn’t order remote learners back in buildings for testing

Earlier this week, I reported the U.S. Department of Education granted states leeway in how and when they administer federally required standardized tests this year, but no way around having to give the exams.

“Statewide assessments are important to identify what extra support schools need to help their students get back on track and to ensure every student has an equitable opportunity to succeed. Our commitment is firm that the Department of Education must ensure educators and policymakers have as much statewide data as possible to ensure that support and resources are directed to schools and students who need it most,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the U.S. Senate and House education committee chairs, in a statement Tuesday in explanation of why they endorsed testing this year.

The federal education agency defanged the tests by removing some weights and accountability measures, including penalties for failing to have 95% student participation. Georgia was seeking a waiver from giving its annual Milestones tests this year due to the challenges and disruptions to public schools from the pandemic.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods released a statement today about the federal stance, and this is the critical part for parents whose children are learning remotely and do not want them to return to buildings for testing:

With these changes in place to remove student and teacher consequences, the federal removal of the 95% participation requirement, and the clear direction of USED that students should not be brought into school buildings for the purpose of taking a test, I have communicated to Georgia school districts that they should not require virtual students to come into the building solely for the purpose of taking Georgia Milestones, and should ensure that parents understand this option is available to them.

Sharing Woods’ dismay over the federal position on end-of-year assessments is the national testing reform group FairTest, which said today, “The Biden Administration’s decision to require the administration of federally mandated standardized exams this year contradicts the judgement of parents, educators, and community leaders. At least 10 states had already prepared test waiver requests, both major teacher unions oppose the exams, and polls showed that a majority of parents wanted tests suspended. FairTest is already working with families and grassroots groups across the nation to build a huge, powerful opt-out movement in spring 2021.”

Here is Woods’ full statement:

On the evening of February 22, all states received information from the U.S. Department of Education (USED) regarding assessment, accountability, and reporting requirements for the 2020-21 school year (that letter is linked here).

The good news is that USED is inviting states to request a waiver, for the 2020-21 school year, of the accountability and school identification requirements in federal law. This would apply to CCRPI along with the identification of schools for state support (CSI and TSI). As soon as we receive additional information from USED, Georgia will seek all available flexibility from these requirements.

Unfortunately, there is disappointing news as well. USED has made it clear they will not waive federal testing requirements for 2020-21. This means Georgia will have to proceed with administering the Georgia Milestones assessment this spring.

I completely disagree with this decision, and believe it shows the continued disconnect between Washington, D.C. and the realities of the classroom. At this point, our focus is on ensuring this disheartening decision does not harm the health and safety of any Georgia student.

USED’s letter mentions remote administration of state tests. We have thoroughly investigated this option and it is not achievable from a logistical, connectivity, or security standpoint. We are unaware of any states that have accomplished remote administration of a secure standardized test on this scale without major issues.

However, USED also specifically states in their letter that “certainly, we do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test.” Additionally, the federal requirement that 95% of students participate in assessments will be waivable according to USED’s letter.

Georgia has already worked to reduce the high-stakes nature of testing this year. The State Board of Education approved my recommendation to reduce the weight of Georgia Milestones EOCs to 0.01% of students’ final grades, and I directed school districts with flexibility contracts to use input from teachers and parents, placement committees, class performance, and formative tools instead of Georgia Milestones to make student promotion/retention decisions. We have also waived the summative TKES evaluation for 2020-21 – meaning teachers will still receive observations but will not receive an end-of-year, scored evaluation.

With these changes in place to remove student and teacher consequences, the federal removal of the 95% participation requirement, and the clear direction of USED that students should not be brought into school buildings for the purpose of taking a test, I have communicated to Georgia school districts that they should not require virtual students to come into the building solely for the purpose of taking Georgia Milestones, and should ensure that parents understand this option is available to them.

I appreciate the flexibility offered by USED around accountability and school identification. I am disappointed by their approach to testing, and I continue to believe that high-stakes standardized tests in the middle of a pandemic are not necessary, wise, or useful. At this point, we are working to ensure maximum flexibility around testing and to ensure the health and safety of every Georgia student.”

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