If you wondered how Georgia’s leaders would respond to the pandemic’s disruption to education this spring, the answer is in: They’re conceding next year, too.

Gov. Brian Kemp and the state’s schools superintendent, Richard Woods, on Thursday said they were asking for a federal waiver of standardized-testing requirements next year – exams still some 10 months away. In the name of “common sense,” they would eliminate the state’s most meaningful measure of student progress.

Let’s hope the feds turn them down.

“High stakes” testing is a four-letter word among the education establishment. But measuring student learning remains vital.

Are more students likely to be behind grade level next year? Unfortunately, yes. Remote learning this spring was uneven – not only from district to district or school to school, but from teacher to teacher and student to student. The usual learning losses over the summer will probably be worse; most of Georgia’s students will go almost five months without seeing the inside of a classroom. And it’s certainly possible a “second wave” of coronavirus will again disrupt classes.

That is all the more reason to measure where students are when they resume schooling in the fall, and how far they advance by next spring. Tests tell us those things, in clear terms. If a future disruption makes testing untenable, deal with it then. But why concede now?

An analogy: If you know you’ve gotten behind on your credit card payments, the answer is not to stop looking at your statements. It’s to use the numbers on those statements as clear indicators of whether your problem is getting better or worse.

We know this problem is real. Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit based at Harvard University, reviewed data from an online math-education company called Zearn that works with school districts across the country, including some in Georgia. The trends it found in our state this spring are disturbing, to say the least.

On March 1, before schools shut down, Georgia students using Zearn had shown an improvement of about 13% since January. The gains were similar across ZIP codes with high, medium and low incomes; students in low-income ZIP codes actually outperformed the average.

Then the shutdowns began. By May 3, the average student’s learning had fallen by 14.5% since January. Students in high-income ZIP codes continued to make solid progress, but progress among those in low-income ZIP codes fell by a whopping 54.3%. Given the current debate about social inequities, that’s unconscionable.

That isn’t the only data point. A new study by national nonprofit EmpowerK12 and Georgia-based Learn4Life and RedefinED Atlanta estimated that, had third- through eighth-graders in metro Atlanta taken this year’s standardized tests, their scores would have fallen by almost 8% in English/language arts and by more than 10% in math. “Economically disadvantaged students and students of color, who were already behind their peers, will fall further behind,” the authors noted.

Are those ominous signs the reason Georgia’s leaders don’t want to know how bad things will be next spring? I hope not. Perhaps the reason is more typical than that, such as caving to an education establishment that has long hated the tests and now sees a chance to wriggle out of them.

An alternative metric, such as allowing students to move on from a topic only after demonstrating mastery of it, might be more appropriate. But scrapping the test altogether isn’t the answer.

If the state receives that federal waiver, parents should demand a way out. Like what? Well, in this month’s Republican primary, 73% of voters agreed that legislators should “expand educational options by allowing a student’s state education dollars to follow to the school that best fits their needs, whether that is public, private, magnet, charter, virtual or homeschool.”

That’s three voters in favor for every one opposed. If Georgia’s Republican leaders won’t insist on accountability for schools, they could at least hand that accountability to parents in the form of a choice. Nothing is more “high stakes” than your own child’s future.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.

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