Georgia takes first formal step to dismiss standardized tests in schools

The Georgia Department of Education is opening a public survey today about high-stakes testing in the public schools, the first step in seeking permission to waive the exams again during the coronavirus pandemic.

Under federal law, Georgia must administer its Milestones standardized tests in third grade through high school, but the U.S. Department of Education waived the requirement last spring as schools reeled from closures due to COVID-19.

Georgia wants U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to continue that waiver into the next school year. State leaders say Georgia will instead offer an optional low-stakes test called BEACON to identify children who are falling behind.

Unlike the Milestones, which come once after a semester course or a school year, BEACON can be given repeatedly through the year to allow teachers to see which state standards their students need more help learning. Also, unlike with the Milestones, BEACON would not be used to judge the teachers and their schools.

During this "dark moment" in history, says an undated letter to DeVos signed by Gov. Brian Kemp and state school Superintendent Richard Woods, teachers and students need to be free from worry about the tests, and schools have better uses for the time and money normally spent on administering them.

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The two Georgia leaders announced in mid-June that they planned to seek the waiver, making the state, as far as they knew, the first to announce such a move.

Teachers and school administrators have to focus on developing "drastically different and challenging" ways of teaching that minimize the risk of spreading the virus, they wrote in the letter released Monday, and the educators must accomplish this amid the worst budget cuts since the Great Recession.

They need freedom from the "fear and punishment" and "hyper-accountability" associated with high-stakes standardized tests, Kemp and Woods wrote.

"It is a time to extend grace to each other," their letter concludes. "We are confident history will show the wisdom in this way forward."

The survey will be conducted over the next two weeks. Take it here.

The test results form the core of the school report cards produced each year by the Georgia Department of Education, and they are used in teacher evaluations.

The tests are the essential measure of school performance, and without them significant portions of education policy are in limbo.

For instance, charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated, are given contracts that are renewed based on test performance.

Last week, the State Charter Schools Commission extended the ongoing charters of its schools by another year, acknowledging that without the tests last spring there was no way to hold them accountable for the 2019-20 school year.

Commissioners raised concerns about what to do next year if the tests are waived again, mentioning the need for a “proxy” test.

Lauren Holcomb, the agency executive director, said that without a statewide exam, there is no “apples to apples” comparison of state charter schools against the local public schools they are meant to beat.

"I'm not terribly comfortable with going two years without any performance data for our schools,” she said.

Charter schools aren’t the only schools affected. In theory, nearly all Georgia public schools operate under charters or similar “flexibility” contracts that allow them to waive aspects of state education law. They earn freedom from regulations covering academics, finances and other administrative matters, in exchange for test results that meet contractual agreements.

Of Georgia's 180 school districts, 178 are either "charter" systems or "strategic waivers" systems. Their waivers are contingent on adequate academic performance, primarily based on the tests.