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Georgia schools gain option to gut year-end tests amid COVID-19 pandemic
Ben Mullins, Unsplash

Georgia K-12 public schools have the option not to count year-end tests toward students’ final grades this year due to schooling hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic following a vote Monday by the state Board of Education.

State law requires scores on the annual Georgia Milestones tests to account for 20% of the cumulative grades for most of the state’s public-school students, from the third grade up to their senior year.

But this year, the Milestones scores can be counted essentially zero after State School Superintendent Richard Woods won approval for his proposal to water down the tests so students and teachers can have some relief as they continue working through tremendous challenges due to the virus.

“I firmly believe this is the right thing for kids,” Woods said after Monday’s vote. “We must ensure students and teachers are not penalized for circumstances beyond their control.”

School districts now have leeway to recalculate final course grades for the fall semester and count the tests as 0.01% if they want, a state Department of Education spokesperson confirmed. The same 0.01% weight can also apply for year-end tests in the upcoming spring 2021 semester.

Critically, each district also has the option to count the test scores higher than the 0.01% weight for students’ final grades in their local schools if they choose, the spokesperson confirmed.

Woods’ 0.01% proposal gained huge support from students, teachers, parents and school advocates across the state after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos shot down his request in September to relax federal requirements on standardized tests this year with the pandemic.

DeVos insisted on using the tests to gauge school performance despite the impacts of virtual learning, which has upended how teachers instruct the state’s nearly 2 million students.

But Woods, backed by Georgia’s largest teachers’ union, pledged to gut the tests.

“Don’t worry about the tests,” Woods told local school districts in September. “We will abide by federal law, but we are also going to take the high-stakes power of the tests away.”

Despite his pledge, Woods’ plan was nearly killed in October when several state board members agreed with DeVos that the test weights should stay put, both to track how much students are learning and keep them from shrugging off their studies if the tests have no teeth.

“I’m not ready to give up on this year,” said Mike Royal, a 10-year board member who opposed scrapping the test weights entirely.

Royal joined other board members in October to hack the tests’ weight down to 10% instead of 0.01%, triggering a 30-day public comment period required before a final vote. That decision was met with intense backlash, the board to ditch the 10% alternative last month and back Woods’ original proposal.

“It has been an increasingly challenging year,” board Chairman Scott Sweeney said after Monday’s vote. “We still have a tremendous amount of work before us.”

Georgia schools are staring down another rough road to close out the 2020-21 term after shifting to online-only courses last spring and returning to uncertain classroom settings in the fall. Many districts remain strictly virtual while others have given students the option to resume in-person studies.

Meanwhile, standardized tests in Georgia are in the crosshairs after Woods outlined plans in October to continue shrinking the importance of year-end assessments and give local school districts more flexibility to evaluate student and teacher performance — ideas that Gov. Brian Kemp also supports.

That follows legislation the General Assembly passed this year that eliminated four year-end tests in Georgia high schools and one in the third grade, marking a win for the governor as he pushes to lock in support from educators ahead of his bid for re-election in 2022.