Georgia students will likely take Milestones tests despite pandemic

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is unlikely to grant exam waivers

Georgia students got a reprieve from standardized tests last spring after schools closed for the coronavirus pandemic, but should not expect another pass this school year.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says she is unlikely to grant states another waiver from federally-mandated standardized tests. In a letter to the Council of Chief State School Officers Thursday, she said states should not anticipate another pass on testing like they got last spring. The word “not” was underlined.

“There is broad and consistent support for assessments because there is general agreement among the public that a student’s achievement should be measured, that parents deserve to know how their children are performing, and that it should be no secret how a school’s performance as a whole compares to other schools,” DeVos wrote. “If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come.”

Her decision provoked a prickly reaction from Georgia’s state school superintendent, Richard Woods, who said her decision “shows a complete disconnect” from the reality of schooling during a pandemic.

“Continuing to administer high-stakes tests during these unprecedented and uncertain times is, sadly, more about adults than the needs of students and teachers,” Woods wrote in a public letter. He was part of a contingent that hosted DeVos for a tour and talk at a Forsyth County high school last week.

Woods successfully petitioned DeVos to waive Georgia’s Milestones tests last spring and was joined by Gov. Brian Kemp when he requested another waiver for this school year. Kemp’s office had no comment about DeVos’ announcement.

Kemp and Woods also backed legislation this year that eliminated the fifth-grade social studies test and four high school tests. Nineteen Milestones tests remain — two more than the federal government requires. (The extra tests are for eighth-grade Georgia history and high school U.S. history.)

The Milestones are the backbone of Georgia’s school report card, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, and are the essential measure of compliance with state contracts. All but two of Georgia’s 180 school districts have signed “flexibility” contracts with the Georgia Department of Education. The contracts allow waivers from mandates like minimum school days and maximum class sizes in exchange for meeting performance targets.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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The tests also are used in renewal decisions for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. In June, the State Charter Schools Commission extended the ongoing charters of its schools by another year, since there was no way to measure their performance after DeVos waived the mandate for the spring exams.

“I’m glad that we’re not going to get this waiver,” Commission Vice-Chair Buzz Brockway said. “We have to measure student performance.”

Some say DeVos’ concern about missing another round of tests is misplaced during the pandemic.

“Who cares about Milestones? Missing two? We can’t even get back to school,” said Stacey Gyorgyi, a parent in Gwinnett County.

The Georgia Association of Educators, among the larger teacher lobbies in the state, was also critical of DeVos, suggesting that tests are not a useful indicator of teaching and learning.

From Superintendent Woods: "This morning, Chief State School Officers received a letter from Secretary Betsy DeVos...

Posted by Georgia Department of Education on Thursday, September 3, 2020

“We will continue to work to ensure that like Superintendent Woods, other policy makers will understand that ‘A child is more than a test score,’” the organization said.

Woods said “don’t worry.” He said he has plans “to reduce the pressure” of the tests this school year.

“If the spring gets here and we are still federally required to administer a summative assessment, we will abide by federal law, but we are also going to take the high-stakes power of the tests away,” he wrote.

DeVos said in her letter that she and her staff are “open to discussions” about how test scores are used for school accountability.