State school board rejects plan to value exams close to zero

Georgia’s state Board of Education balked Thursday at a plan to make standardized tests statistically meaningless for public high school students’ grades this year, in an hourslong clash that shows many board members disagree with state Superintendent Richard Woods’ efforts to dismantle Georgia’s system of grading students, schools and teachers.

Woods, an elected Republican, wanted to cut from 20% to 0.01% the amount that end-of-course exams in algebra, American literature and composition, biology and U.S. history count in a high school student’s overall course grade. Board members rejected that plan in an 8-4 vote. Instead, they agreed 9-3 to seek public comment on making the exams count for 10%.

Thursday’s vote is not the final word. The proposal will go out for public comment and board members will vote again after at least 30 days.

Woods argues the tests will have no statistical validity this year because of pandemic-related disruptions. He has been a foe of standardized testing, saying teachers should be trusted to take care of their students without testing oversight.

“As a student, as a child and as a teacher, I didn’t have to deal with this,” Woods told board members. “And I think I turned out pretty good and I think my students turned out pretty doggone good as well. And I think we could learn a lot from that.”

Woods said many districts are changing what they are teaching. He pointed to earlier comments by Clayton County Superintendent Morcease Beasley that his district wasn’t teaching all the state standards because it didn’t have time to communicate all material in online lessons. Woods wanted Georgia to skip administering any tests for a second year in a row, but U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the federal government would refuse those requests.

“I think it’s just unconscionable that we give a test,” Woods said. “But I have to give a test. We’re going to follow federal law.”

Woods said he proposed setting the value of the tests at 0.01% because state lawmakers earlier this year refused to allow the value of the tests to be lowered to zero. Board members said they feared students wouldn’t try on tests with no value, disagreeing that the tests would have no merit amid the challenges of COVID-19.

“What we get out of these tests is data, objective data,” said board member Mike Royal. “We’ll be able to say what districts need to do better.”

With Woods’ backing, lawmakers earlier this year eliminated four high school tests and one middle school test that were previously required. At times Thursday, the discussion edged into board members defending Georgia’s overall accountability system, which other Republicans spent decades building before Woods and Gov. Brian Kemp started taking it apart.

“I have been voting for 10 years on accountability,” Royal said. “Like it or not, testing is one of the best objective measures we have to evaluate performance based on standards.”

Some local leaders also told the board Thursday it would be wrong to penalize students who perform poorly.

“We feel right now that the last thing we need to focus on is accountability and assessment,” Kelli Kendrick, chief academic officer for Calhoun schools, told the board of education.

Mary Lyn Huffman, parent of a Marietta student, told board members her son was taking dual enrollment courses and she was afraid he won’t have learned the material for the American literature test. That’s not a new problem, but she said she feared a low grade could hurt her son’s ability to qualify for the HOPE and more lucrative Zell Miller college scholarships.

“You are now affecting my son’s HOPE and Zell scholarship opportunities,” Huffman said.

The superintendent is also encouraging districts not to use test scores in deciding whether to force students to repeat a grade. Georgia law says no student who doesn’t perform at grade level should be promoted for fourth, sixth or ninth grades unless an appeals committee approves.

Some high school students would normally take end-of-course exams in November, toward the end of one-semester courses. Woods announced last week that he would let districts give those tests later in the school year.