By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday signaled it will deny Georgia’s request to waive year-end standardized tests for the 2020-21 school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking a bold backlash from the state’s top school official.
In a letter Thursday, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Georgia school officials they “should not anticipate” receiving approval to scrap the annual assessments this year, citing the need to maintain performance standards and data-tracking for student achievement.
“If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come,” DeVos wrote. “Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment.”
State School Superintendent Richard Woods slammed DeVos’ letter.
“It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom and will be a detriment to public education,” he wrote in a statement.
Woods then advised Georgia school districts not to sweat the tests despite any waiver denial because he will likely move to strip the tests of their scores and results value.
“Don’t worry about the tests,” Woods said Thursday.
He added: “If the spring gets here and we are still federally required to administer a summative assessment, we will abide by federal law, but we are also going to take the high-stakes power of the tests away.”
“No test prepping or cramming. No punishing students, teachers or schools for scores. No giving up weeks to administer, remediate and administer tests.”
“I repeat: do not worry about the tests.”
Georgia officials submitted a testing waiver request in June to abstain from year-end tests as the state’s roughly 2,800 public schools continue grappling with resuming classes online and in-person amid the virus. The federal government must approve the waiver before tests can be paused.
The waiver request drew broad support from students, parents, teachers and other Georgians who were surveyed recently on whether they back scrapping tests again this year, after tests were shelved with federal approval in the spring during the opening months of the pandemic.
School officials sought the waiver as not only a breather for students and teachers already grappling with profound learning environment changes prompted by the virus, but also as a means to save on millions of dollars needed to administer the tests while school budgets are being slashed statewide.
The Georgia Association of Educators praised Woods’ condemnation of DeVos’ letter Thursday, calling a federal mandate to move forward with year-end tests during the pandemic out of touch with the realities of challenges local schools face.
“We expected these actions by Secretary DeVos since her public statements have indicated as such,” said Lisa Morgan, the association’s president. “We are disappointed that the USDOE continues to value test scores as valid and reliable indicators of the teaching and learning that occurs in our classrooms each day.”
State officials have already eliminated four year-end tests in high school and one in the third grade from the trove of annual assessments this year due to legislation the General Assembly passed in June and Gov. Brian Kemp signed a short time later.
As of Thursday afternoon, more than 277,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 5,868 Georgians.