State board grants preliminary reprieve from counting Milestones in high school grades

Final vote in what became a controversial issue will come next month
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 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 state Board of Education held two days of lengthy and impassioned debate this week over whether high school students should be held accountable for Milestones exams this year, something 86% of parents, educators and administrators opposed in a survey that drew 93,079 responses.

In the end, the board deferred to State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, granting preliminary approval to essentially eliminating the weight of Milestones scores on grades in the four high school courses where the tests will be given. The board will take a final vote next month. (Students must take the Georgia Milestones as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos refused to waive the federal requirement for high-stakes exams.)

It took a lot of persuading for some board members, whose comments suggested they had more confidence in state exams to prove student learning than in tests and grades given by teachers. The Milestones typically taken in high school are Algebra, U.S. history, biology and American literature and composition.

The insistence by some board members to soldier on and keep testing and counting made it appear they didn’t grasp the upheaval to Georgia classrooms from the coronavirus. The disruptions to schooling that Woods was witnessing led him to seek board approval to reduce the weight of the Milestones in high school grades from the current 20%.

Woods said, “I can guarantee you this year there is nothing equitable about education. Why can’t we trust our teachers with 100% of the grades this year?”

In October, the board rebuffed Woods’ request to plunge the weights to 0.01% in an 8-4 vote, arguing students need an incentive to take the end-of-course Milestones exams seriously. The board did attempt to meet the superintendent halfway, agreeing in a 9-3 vote for a 10% weight. But the distraught responses during the 30-day public commenting period and educator testimony promoted the board to reconsider.

Among educators speaking to the board Thursday was high school social studies teacher Brian Sirmans of Lanier County Schools, who is also chairman of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. “We have cases where students have missed four-plus weeks,” said Sirmans, explaining Lanier County delayed the start of school by three weeks due to COVID-19. As a result, Lanier’s first semester will not end until Jan. 15. Yet, its students are scheduled to take end-of-course tests on Dec. 7.

With the late start and a surge of absences due to quarantines, he said teachers and students in Lanier are struggling to catch up. “The stress level for teachers is like nothing we’ve ever seen. Due to so many elements that are outside our control, I have had to focus on the most important issues in my classroom -- the physical and mental health and well-being of my students,” said Sirmans.

Amid the pandemic, Sirmans said his principal advised teachers to “focus on relationships before rigor, love before lessons, patience before programs and grace before grades.”

Some board members contended a temporary reprieve from counting the end-of-course score in student grades would undermine accountability. “In my business, we trust one another. We love one another. We call ourselves a family, but you know that we hold each other accountable. Education is not an exception to that. We can’t leave it up to whether I trust or you trust or a parent trusts a teacher: Because they are human like the rest of us,” said board member Scott Johnson.

Others shrugged off the results of a state DOE survey, suggesting it was designed to produce those results, even though the language of the survey was straightforward: Should state exams count 20%, 10% or 0.01%?

State board member Mike Royal, who, at one point in the discussion, said he supported Donald Trump but would still “break bread” with Joe Biden voters, took a page out of the president’s playbook in discounting the DOE survey results. “It was 93,000 responses. We don’t know how many double voted...Or triple voted. Or what. A lot of people weighed in on this,” he said.

“We should not dismiss the opinions of 93,000 Georgians,” said Woods. “There was not a design to skew the survey; there was no intent to have a predetermined outcome. This is what Georgians truly feel.”

Board members who wanted test scores to still influence grades acknowledged the impact of the pandemic on learning, but argued overcoming adversity inspires perseverance and grit in students. “One of my favorite phrases is smooth seas never made skilled sailors,” said board member Trey Allen.

But board member David “Butch” Mosely reminded his colleagues their pontifications were coming from the safety of state offices in downtown Atlanta. “What really bothers me is that we 14 people sit here in Atlanta or at home in our comfortable chairs, and we’re thinking for people out there in the field, who are grinding it out every day and know what’s best for their individual systems,” said Mosely.

“And here we are telling them what we think they ought to do when they have overwhelmingly told us what they think they should be allowed to do this year,” he said. “We are not listening to those we entrusted to do the job for us.”

Have your say: Public comment on reducing the weight of the high school Milestones 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.