Students at Heritage Elementary School in Macon recently picked up laptops for the start of virtual school for fall 2020.
CaptionStudents at Heritage Elementary School in Macon recently picked up laptops for the start of virtual school for fall 2020. (Grant Blankenship/GPB)

Georgia’s top school official issued a stinging rebuke Thursday to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her advice for states not to expect another coronavirus waiver on high-stakes testing such as the Georgia Milestones test.

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

“I have to be completely candid with my thoughts on this decision,” said Georgia’s School Superintendent Richard Woods. “It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom, and will be a detriment to public education.”

In a three-page letter addressed to “Dear Chief State School Officer,” DeVos notified state education officials that she expects schools to administer assessment tests this year.  “You should not anticipate such waivers being granted again,” DeVos said

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, DeVos’ U.S. Department of Education did waive all requirements for high stakes, year ending tests, like the Georgia Milestones test, tied to federal education standards.

“That was the right call, given the limited information available about the virus at the time and the need to stop its spread, as well as the practical realities limiting the administration of assessments,” DeVos said in the letter.  “However, it is now our expectation that states will, in the interest of students, administer summative assessments during the 2020-2021 school year.”

Woods was unequivocal in his response.

“We cannot control the federal testing requirement, but we can control its high-stakes components. It is time to be bold,” he said. “To our districts, families, educators, and students: don’t worry about the tests. Given the unique environment we are in, they are neither valid nor reliable measures of academic progress or achievement.

In her letter, DeVos cited a national survey of parents in which 77% said they wanted a return this year of high stakes tests. Woods countered with his own survey in which 96% of 98,000 Georgia residents polled said the opposite.

“This announcement from [the U.S. Department of Education] disregards their voices and input,” Woods said.

“Those who push the rhetoric about moving forward with high-stakes summative testing during a pandemic show total disregard for the realities faced by our families, students, and educators,” Woods continued. “Make no mistake – these test scores will not be used to support teaching and learning, as the proponents suggest. They will be used to undermine our public education system, understate the heroic efforts of our teachers, and undercut any opportunity we have for a full K-12 recovery.”

Woods went on to say that regardless of his feelings, he and the state are bound by law to comply with the test standards. But he was clear that he would refuse to make them a priority. He told parents and teachers they should feel free to do the same.

“Worry about the well-being of your students and teachers. Worry about doing what’s right,” he said.

Woods said that means no test prep or test cramming; no taking instructional time to give the tests; and no punishing students, teachers, or schools for scores that don’t hit benchmarks. The elected Republican official also said he had the backing of Gov. Brian Kemp.

“I deeply appreciate having Gov. Kemp’s support every step of the way in our common commitment to let our teachers teach,” Woods said. “Rest assured, if another opportunity provides itself, we will aggressively pursue testing waivers again.”

Grant is a multimedia editor and reporter based in Macon. Additionally, he teaches and mentors college journalism students by virtue of the GPB Macon bureau's relationship with the Center for Collaborative...