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Superintendent Woods on U.S. Department of Education's lack of support for common-sense testing waivers

September 3, 2020 –This morning, Chief State School Officers received a letter from Secretary Betsy DeVos stating that the U.S. Department of Education does not plan to grant federal testing waivers for the 2020-21 school year.

The exact wording of the letter was: “You should not anticipate such waivers being granted again."

I have to be completely candid with my thoughts on this decision. It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom, and will be a detriment to public education.

Though testing is a federal requirement, I have worked in earnest to get our state requirements in line with the federal minimum. This legislative session, we worked with Governor Kemp and state lawmakers to cut the number of high-stakes tests in high school in half and move the testing window toward the end of the school year, preserving instructional time.

Despite these reforms, today's decision from USED is definitively a setback. Secretary DeVos's letter claims that “parents agree" assessments should resume in the midst of the pandemic, but in Georgia, 98,000 people weighed in on our waiver request and 96% were in agreement with it. This announcement from USED disregards their voices and input.

Secretary DeVos's letter does state that USED is “open to discussions about what, if any, actions may be needed how the results of assessments are used in your state's school accountability determinations – so I am hopeful USED will grant the accountability portions of Georgia's waiver.

And yet, in a year when instructional time is so precious, why cut into it with high-stakes testing? At a time when our economic outlook is still shaky and millions of dollars are having to be cut from our classrooms, why divert millions to high-stakes tests? At a time when families, students, and educators have understandable anxiety about returning to a new instructional environment, why add the additional stress of high-stakes testing?

Continuing to administer high-stakes tests during these unprecedented and uncertain times is, sadly, more about adults than the needs of students and teachers.

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. 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.

Testing is a federal requirement and we will follow the law, but we will also continue to pursue a path of common sense and compassion.

We cannot control the federal testing requirement, but we can control its high-stakes components. It is time to be bold.

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.

I repeat: do not worry about the tests. Worry about meeting the students and teachers where they are. Worry about a safe and supportive restart. Worry about the well-being of your students and teachers. Worry about doing what's right.

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.

In the days ahead, I will announce a list of actions and recommendations to do just that – to reduce the pressure of high-stakes testing in Georgia classrooms for the 2020-2021 school year.

No test prepping or cramming. No punishing students, teachers, or schools for scores. No giving up weeks to administer, remediate, and administer tests.

Georgia was the first state in the nation to publicly announce its intent to apply for a testing waiver for the 2020-2021 school year. This was the right choice for Georgia's students and I believe history will show the wisdom of that principled pursuit.

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

Who we are will be measured not by a test score, but by how we meet this moment.

Richard Woods is State School Superintendent of Georgia.​