Georgia school board, for now, reverses course on impact of Milestones tests

The board rejected Woods’ proposal by an 8-4 vote in October, but on Thursday several members reversed themselves, and a vote that was supposed to ratify the 10% weight they had previously approved was amended to reduce the weight to 0.01% instead. It passed 10-3, but is not final, leaving the 20% standard weight in place if this new measure does not gain final approval next month.

Two of the three board members who changed their minds — Helen Odom Rice and Lee Anne Cowart — referred calls for comment to board chairman Scott Sweeney. He said they switched their votes based on “the full breadth of information presented” this week. He could not guarantee they would not change their minds again, but the third board member who did, Mike Long, said he was confident the measure will pass in December.

Long said he still wants the tests taken seriously but was moved by his discussions and emails with 51 school superintendents. The pandemic has students on edge, he said. “I’m very concerned about our teachers’ mental health as well.”

Long said he also heard quite a bit about his October vote when he shared the news with his wife, who teaches eighth grade, with more than half her students online. “I got it out of my mouth, and all I did after that was listen,” he said.

During the meeting, board member Scott Johnson worried that few would take a test without consequences seriously and that the results would therefore be unhelpful in determining the toll of the disruptions during this school year and last.

“We need that information. Parents need that information,” he said. “The data from testing is crucially important in any year but it is exponentially important information this year.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said in a written statement that the additional 30-day comment period on the proposed lower test weight ”gives our school systems the flexibility they need to make the best decisions for their students during these unprecedented times.”

There are 98,123 students scheduled to sit for their Milestones exams during the winter testing window, which starts Nov. 30 and ends Jan. 6, according to Allison Timberlake, the deputy state superintendent who oversees the testing process. They are in 134 school districts, and all but one of those districts are scheduled to end testing before the Dec. 21 board vote.

The federally-mandated tests are administered online. However, because they must be proctored, they generally must be taken at school.

The law allows students to refuse to take the tests, but the effect on grades is an inducement. That could mean a difficult decision for students attending school online to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“For those who are medically fragile children, the decision could be more far-reaching,” Woods said.

Kimberly Eklund hopes the school board ultimately reduces the weight to near zero. Her daughter, 9, has viral-induced asthma, so she and her 15-year-old brother, a sophomore, have been attending Forsyth County Schools online to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“If she catches this, it could end her life,” Eklund said. Meanwhile, her son is in advanced classes and has already risked exposure to take the PSAT. “But I don’t want him going to take anything else, especially not sitting in a classroom that long with so many other students,” she said, adding, “He wants to be an astrophysicist, so this is a big deal for him.”

Have your say

Public comment will be taken by email until Dec. 16 at; by telephone until Dec. 16 at 800-311-3627; or by letter mailed by Dec. 14 to Rules Comments, Policy Division, Georgia Department of Education, 2053 Twin Towers East, 205 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, S.E., Atlanta, Georgia 30334.

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