Georgia Milestones, other state school tests suspended

File photo
File photo

The Georgia Department of Education will postpone and maybe eliminate mandatory school testing this year as teachers and school administrators worry about the consequences of disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

On Monday afternoon Gov. Brian Kemp ordered all schools to close through the end of the month. Most had already decided to close for days or weeks to prevent children at schools from spreading the virus. The state’s reaction to the closures affecting 1.8 million students suggests an expectation that they could lose ground academically as school and family life is disrupted. Some school districts have said they plan to shift to online education, but it is unclear how many are equipped to do so. Meanwhile, looming this spring are the Georgia Milestones, the mandatory standardized tests used to measure how well students have been taught.

Amid the tumult, State School Superintendent Richard Woods announced Monday that he is suspending the test administration period “for the foreseeable future.”

Woods, who oversees the Georgia Department of Education, lacks authority to cancel the tests outright. Most of them are mandated by the federal government and all of them by state law. His office said he is asking for permission, though.

“The Georgia Department of Education will seek the maximum authority and waivers afforded by the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies to accommodate this ever-evolving situation,” the statement said.

Meghan Frick, spokeswoman for the agency, said Woods cannot unilaterally cancel the tests but can change their timing without Washington’s approval.

Woods’ decision comes as a relief for teachers, who feared being penalized for lower test scores resulting from the global pandemic. The virus causes a disease called COVID-19. Children and young adults tend to present mild or no symptoms, but it has proved lethal for some older people and some with complicating medical conditions.

Emergency school closures are necessary to shield teachers and students from infection but are undermining education, said Charlotte Booker, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. Her group and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators called for approval of federal waivers.

“I don’t know how you could get a fair score,” Booker said. “There’s no way we can expect our students to be at their best.”

Angela Palm, chief lobbyist for the Georgia School Boards Association, said she suspects the U.S. Department of Education will cancel this year’s tests since President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency and Gov. Brian Kemp has declared a public health emergency, the first in state history.

“I would think a waiver would not be hard to get,” Palm said. In addition to missed classroom time, she said, students may be surrounded by chaos as their parents take ill or lose their jobs as businesses shut down and shed workers.

The federal education agency issued guidance to public schools Thursday that said test scores provide important information to parents, educators and the public about how students are performing, so the testing mandate is rarely waived.

“However, due to the unique circumstances that may arise as a result of COVID-19, such as a school closing during the entire testing window, it may not be feasible for a state to administer some or all of its assessments,” the advisory says. The federal government would, given the “extraordinary” circumstances, consider “a targeted” one-year testing waiver for affected schools, it says.

The elimination of the tests would mean the loss of a yardstick of student performance that is independent of the grades given by teachers. The Milestones measure how much each student has learned about certain subjects where the state has set standards. Each student takes two dozen tests from third grade through high school, in the core subjects of English, math, science and social studies.

Kimberly Wright, a parent with five children in DeKalb County schools, understands the desire to dismiss the tests amid a state emergency, but worries about the consequences.

“It’s going to give the teachers an opening to not teach at the same level that they should,” she said. Without tests that are not written or graded by teachers, she asked, “how can you be assured that your student is where they should be?”

The state education department said schools should be focusing on health and safety right now, suggesting that test concerns are a distraction.

So that students don’t fall too far behind, school districts with the technical capacity are trying to set up online classes. This may be impossible in areas where parents lack internet access, though. Also, some school districts have said they do not have enough computers or other devices to send home with every student. Frick said her agency does not track which of the state’s 180 school districts are so equipped, but is exploring “private partnerships” that could extend internet access to some who lack it. The state is also offering free courses to prepare teachers for online education and working with Georgia Public Broadcasting on educational options that might be transmitted on television and the radio.

As schools prepare for the new teaching medium, they are struggling with a more pressing need: feeding students from low-income households.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued waivers authorizing Georgia to continue with federally subsidized meal programs while schools are closed. School districts’ hastily prepared distribution plans will pose their own logistical challenges, since schools must ensure the meals are being provided only to qualifying students while also getting food into their hands without contributing to the spread of the virus.

In addition to suspending the tests, the state education agency is telling schools there will be no consequences for student absences. Schools also will not be penalized for failure to report educator evaluations. Both of those elements, along with test scores, inform the state report cards used to grade school performance.

Woods also plans to ask the Georgia Board of Education to suspend the use of the test scores for calculating high school grade-point averages. The scores count for a fifth of high school course grades.

High school students who plan to attend college will find other changes, as the two major college admissions tests accommodate the health crisis. The ACT exam scheduled for April 4 has been pushed back to June 13, the organization announced on its website. (Those who have registered should get an email about it.) And the College Board posted on its website that it is canceling the May 2 SAT test and refunding fees for students who registered for it. The organization is also developing resources for remote learning of Advanced Placement course material and preparing for a way to let students take their AP tests at home.

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