Georgia high school tests might not count toward grades

Students in Georgia public high schools would face no consequences for failing statewide standardized tests for at least one year under a proposal from state Superintendent Richard Woods in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Woods announced the plan Thursday, saying that he wants the state Board of Education to nearly zero out the amount that four end-of-course exams in algebra, American literature and composition, biology and U.S. History will count in a student’s grade in that course.

Now, the tests count for 20% of a student’s course grade. Under Woods’ plan, they would count for 0.01%. He only wants to keep that tiny fraction because lawmakers this year refused to allow the state Board of Education to entirely remove the tests from counting.

The board agenda posted Thursday calls for the reduction to last one year, but it’s not clear if the amount would rebound to 20% after this year.

Woods had promised that he would seek to reduce the weight of state standardized testing after U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made clear that she would not waive federal requirements for standardized tests for a second year. Georgia and other states did not give tests last spring because of COVID-19.

“Georgia will abide by federal law, but we are not going to layer additional stress and burden onto our students and teachers during this time,” Woods said in a statement Thursday. “In this environment, these tests are not valid or reliable measures of academic progress or achievement, and we are taking all possible steps at the state level to reduce their high-stakes impact.”

Woods, an elected Republican, has cast himself as a foe of standardized tests, and has worked to dismantle a system of accountability that other Republicans spent years building. With his backing, lawmakers earlier this year eliminated four high school tests and one middle school test that were previously required.

The superintendent is also encouraging districts not to use test scores in deciding whether to force students to repeat a grade. Georgia law says that no student who doesn’t perform at grade level should be promoted for fourth, sixth or ninth grades unless an appeals committee approves. However, department spokeswoman Meghan Frick said that law has already been waived, through district flexibility agreements, for all but five of Georgia’s traditional school districts. The districts still bound by the rules are Buford, Heard County, Montgomery County, Webster County and Worth County

Some high school students would normally take end-of-course exams in November, toward the end of one-semester courses. Woods announced Thursday that he would let districts give those tests later in the school year, if they feel students haven’t had enough instruction. He also said districts could give tests after the end of the school day, which could allow special arrangements for students learning from home.

Georgia Association of Educators President Lisa Morgan applauded Woods’ “continued efforts to promote compassion over compliance and a focus on students and their well-being rather than testing.” The state affiliate of the National Education Association called on Gov. Brian Kemp to follow up by suspending teacher evaluations that are required by state law, as he did last year.

However, Michael Sullivan, executive director of education lobby group GeorgiaCAN, repeated his call for the state to preserve its testing system. He said tests this year are not valueless, but crucial to determining whether students are falling further behind because of COVID-19 disruptions.

“They are very important for learning what wasn’t taught and what wasn’t retained,” Sullivan said.