Year-end standardized tests for Georgia public schools are poised to count for zero this school year after state education officials moved Thursday to lower the weight those scores have on students’ final grades from 20% to 0.01%.

The 0.01% grade weight is the most the annual Georgia Milestones tests can be watered down without running afoul of federal rules requiring schools to administer the tests.

On Thursday, members of the State Board of Education voted 10-3 to weight the test scores as essentially zero at a minimum, citing the disruptions to education in Georgia resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts could still decide individually to increase the grade weights for their students.

With the disruptions during this school year, on top of the abbreviated 2019-2020 year, having more flexibility with the test scores is beneficial, Rome City Schools Superintendent Lou Byars said.

Students have been falling behind on instruction time because of the short school year, including intermittent quarantines because of COVID-19 exposures, Floyd County Schools Superintendent Glenn White said.

“I think it’s a great idea, considering this COVID-19 situation,” White said. “I really feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

The change needs another vote from the state board before it can take effect. It also requires a 30-day public comment period before that vote.

Last month, the board balked at lowering the test scores to zero, choosing instead to set the grade weights at 10% during the virus-impacted school year. But a survey of about 90,000 parents, teachers, students and others in Georgia found around 86% supported the 0.01% mark.

The push to water down the tests came in September after the U.S. Department of Education denied Georgia’s request to scrap the Milestones tests this year, citing the need for schools to keep up data on student performance during the pandemic.

Furious over that decision, State School Superintendent Richard Woods proposed reducing the test grades to the 0.01% weight in order to ease pressure on students and teachers already struggling to keep up coursework with online classes and overhauled in-person learning environments.

Woods praised the state board’s decision Thursday to support his proposal, reiterating his belief that students and teachers deserve a break from the test’s influence this school year.

“My position on this has not changed: it is logistically, pedagogically and morally unreasonable to administer high-stakes standardized tests in the middle of a pandemic,” Woods said. “If the federal government is going to continue insisting on the administration of these exams, it is incumbent on us at the state level to ensure they are not high-stakes and do not penalize students and teachers for circumstances beyond their control.”

Many parents, teachers and concerned Georgians turned out to public meetings and sent emails backing Woods’ proposal, arguing some students in high school could risk losing scholarship or college enrollment opportunities.

“Our students’ futures are riding on these test scores,” said Teresa Nichols, a 7th-grade math teacher at Northeast Middle School in Tifton. “It could be the difference between a scholarship for college and not going to college at all. I am afraid if we penalize our students this year, the high school dropout rate will increase.”

Several board members said local school administrators should be given trust and leeway to make sure their students take the tests seriously, despite the absence of grade weight.

“We are giving the ultimate flexibility tied to accountability to the school systems if we adopt this,” said board member Martha Zoller.

Others, however, argued gutting the grade weights would render the tests meaningless, eliminating the benefits of measuring performance data this year and incentivizing students to abandon taking the tests entirely.

“We can’t make this a meaningless exercise,” said board member Trey Allen. “I really think our kids deserve better.”

Some board members also questioned whether students who take the tests before a final decision is made in December would be stuck with the original 20% grade weights, though state officials indicated those weights would be changed if the board ultimately adopts the 0.01% amount.

Rome News-Tribune Editor John Bailey contributed to this report.

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