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State School Superintendent refuses to turn around on testing

I have a new hero. His name is Richard Woods and he is the state school superintendent of Georgia.

First, a little background: For a couple of years during the Deal administration, Superintendent Woods, although duly elected by the people, was relegated to the governor’s time-out chair in a dispute over how to deal with the state’s lowest performing schools.

Under a law pushed through by then-Gov. Nathan Deal, that responsibility was given to a chief turnaround officer in 2017, bypassing Woods, who Deal criticized for a “downward spiral of failure” in education under his leadership.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the election of Brian Kemp as governor. How things have changed. Kemp described his relationship with the superintendent as “fantastic.”

And the chief turnaround officer? He resigned in January after the Department of Education initiated an audit of his office, reportedly triggered by a whistleblower and accusations of bid-rigging, workplace harassment and questions regarding travel expenses. Bottom line? The turnaround guy is long gone. Richard Woods is still here. So much for the time-out chair.

Woods, a Republican, came to the job as state school superintendent with excellent credentials. He is a former educator, including 14 years in the classroom as a high school teacher and an additional eight as a school administrator. He was also named teacher of the year during that time.

Compare that to Betsy DeVos, the federal Secretary of Education, who is about as qualified for her job as I am to fly jets in the Moldovan Air Force (if they have any.) DeVos is a Republican fundraiser married to a rich guy and a shill for charter schools.

Her Eminence recently issued a directive from her ivory tower in Washington that the U.S. Department of Education would not grant federal testing waivers for the 2020-21 school year despite the chaos the current pandemic has caused in the classroom and elsewhere. Georgia had been the first state in the nation to announce its intent to apply for such a waiver this year.

That is when Richard Woods promptly unloaded on DeVos. In response, the superintendent said, “(I)n 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.”

And he wasn’t through. “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.”

Woods says in coming days he will announce a list of actions and recommendations to do just that — reduce the pressure of high-stakes testing in Georgia. “No test prepping or cramming. No punishing students, teachers, or schools for scores. No giving up weeks to administer, remediate, and administer tests.”

The superintendent ends his letter saying, “I deeply appreciate having Governor Kemp’s support every step of the way in our common commitment to let our teachers teach.” Amen, brother.

I also appreciate that somebody finally has the teachers’ backs. They have been lied to, disrespected, furloughed, second-guessed and micro-managed at every level of government for way too long by people who couldn’t carry their book bags, including that joke of an education secretary.

Thanks to your strong support, Mr. Woods, maybe Georgia’s public schoolteachers can finally get to do what they signed up to do — teach. If so, that would be quite a turnaround.