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Parents, educators wonder what standardized tests will be like, if students have to take them

On Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp and state school Superintendent Richard Woods resubmitted Georgia’s request for a waiver of standardized testing and accountability requirements to the U.S. Department of Education.

James Martin said his children have dealt with COVID-19 related family deaths, financial hardships and the adjustment of in-person classes all in one school year. He said his son, a freshman at Flowery Branch High School, is worried about staying healthy and completing weekly assignments, not “proving” his knowledge in a standardized test.

“This test is the last worry students need right now is a high stakes test looming over their head,” Martin said.

In the request letter, Kemp and Woods state that while students must be supported, the focus should not be on “test scores, accountability or percentiles.”

“Our marker for success should be that our children got through this time healthy, safe and nurtured while still being able to deliver and measure learning in a responsible and respectful way. It is a time to extend grace to each other,” Kemp and Woods said in the waiver request form. 

Last year, testing was waived as the pandemic shut down schools in March, however, then- U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told Georgia and other states not to expect an exception from the federal requirement for annual exams such as the Milestones again in 2021. 

“If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come,” she wrote in a letter to the Council of Chief State School Officers in September.

But some parents and staff are hopeful the Biden administration will waive testing again.

Jessica Garrish’s daughter is a junior at Gainesville High School and her son is an eighth grader at Gainesville Middle School. While her daughter naturally excels in standardized tests, her son’s performance varies depending on his nerves and environment, she said. Garrish said although standardized tests can effectively evaluate some students, others may never perform at their highest level during exams. 

The pandemic has brought grace to the forefront of education and that should be reflected by the approval of the waiver, she said.

“Grading our teachers and students during this time with a red marker may not necessarily be the best thing for anyone,” Garrish said. “Although I think everyone is working as hard as they can to make it work, I think that there are opportunities for children and things to fall through the cracks that you can't really anticipate right now.”

Hall Superintendent Will Schofield told The Times that generally too many standardized tests are administered nationwide. He said this only reinforces the “incredibly disparate groups” of students in public schools. 

“Spending millions of dollars and countless hours a year to give us information that simply restates socio-economic census data is troubling,” Schofield said. “That being said, meaningful regular measures of literacy and numeracy growth is indispensable to educating 21st century workers and citizens.”

Both Schofield and Jeremy Williams, Gainesville City School System Superintendent said they will support and be ready for the final decision made in the district. However Williams said the pandemic has greatly impacted attendance and learning which will affect any test results. Also if the standardized tests are required this year, administering the in-person test would pose a challenge for students in virtual settings, Williams said. For virtual students, the priority would be to administer the tests in a safe and small group setting. 

“If Milestones are now waived, I am hopeful we can have a snapshot that is used for school improvement rather than accountability reports.  We continue to monitor student growth throughout the year with universal screeners, so we use those results to tailor instruction and provide support,” Williams said.

Williams said Milestones are set to take place in the beginning of April through May. 

Scott McConnell, a mathematics teacher at Johnson High School, believes this year’s standardized tests wouldn’t show an accurate representation of what students have learned or understood, saying tests wouldn’t illustrate the COVID-19 accommodations made by teachers. However, if the Department of Education rejects Kemp and Woods' request, McConnel said teachers could take the data from the tests to create more efficient lesson plans and strategies. 

Without standardized tests, McConnell said there are alternative methods to gauge a student’s performance and understanding. He said teachers should utilize formative assessments as frequently as possible. Formative assessments are assignments such as projects or discussions focused on providing feedback and monitoring a student's progress. 

“Formative assessments can be a myriad of different methods we use to simply check a student's understanding. This allows us to drive our instruction to hit those areas that need re-teaching, and allow us to achieve content and conceptual mastery,” McConnell said.

Martin and Garrish agree. Both parents said they’d rather see the gradual progress of their children through quizzes and in class assignments than an end-of-year exam. 

Martin worries that low-income or displaced students haven’t been able to make learning a priority and an additional assessment will only become a burden. He added that the mix of virtual learning and stress of the pandemic will affect test scores and inevitably students' confidence. 

“Standardized tests should be waived. We’ve been through a pandemic, an economic and racial crisis. Students are trying and they’re working hard. Shouldn’t that be enough?” Martin said. 

Spending millions of dollars and countless hours a year to give us information that simply restates socio-economic census data is troubling. That being said, meaningful regular measures of literacy and numeracy growth is indispensable to educating 21st century workers and citizens.
Hall Superintendent Will Schofield