Whitfield County Schools, and all other school systems in the state, will still have to offer end-of-year Milestones tests to students this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic, but the stakes of those exams have been lowered.
The Georgia Department of Education's request for a waiver of Milestones was denied by the U.S. Department of Education, but "the high-stakes nature" of the annual exams can be reduced, Michelle Caldwell, director of accountability and assessment for Whitfield County Schools, explained during Monday's meeting of the county Board of Education. For example, there will be no College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) this year for schools from the state.
It could be two more years "before we have a true CCRPI again, because this year won't be a benchmark year, either," Caldwell said. "The CCRPI is based on two years worth of data."
The CCRPI scores schools on several components — content mastery, progress, closing gaps, readiness and, for high schools, graduation rate. The CCRPI is Georgia’s accountability tool for annually measuring how well its schools, school systems and the state are helping students achieve their goals.
"Georgia Milestones is a single assessment system that consists of end-of-grade measures in English language arts and mathematics in grades three-eight, end-of-grade measures in science in grades five and eight, end-of-grade measure in social studies in grade eight, and end-of-course measures for specified high school courses," according to the Georgia Department of Education.
School systems also "won't be punished" if fewer than 95% of students participate in Milestones this year, Caldwell said. While Whitfield County Schools will make every effort to allow virtual students to test, "we can't make our virtual kiddos come into school to take (these) tests."
Of Whitfield County Schools’ approximately 12,500 students, roughly 30% selected virtual learning at the start of this school year, but that figure is now under 10%, according to Superintendent Judy Gilreath. Fewer than 1,000 students chose virtual education for the second semester, 277 elementary students, 250 middle school students and 451 in high school.
Each school is working with the families of its virtual students to schedule days and times for them to come in to take the Milestones, Caldwell said. However, if a student, or a student's family, believes it's "unsafe" to be in school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, "we won't make them."
Last week was spring break for Whitfield County Schools, but for the week that ended March 26, the system recorded 17 cases of COVID-19 among students and seven cases among staff members. That was the highest number of student cases since the week that ended Feb. 12, when 20 cases were reported, and the highest number of staff cases since the week that ended Jan. 29, when there were 10 cases.
The figures for the last week in March are still sharply lower than this winter's peak, however. In January, for example, the system recorded 56 positive cases among staff, and 179 among students.
The goal in conducting Milestones this year is to determine the impact of COVID-19 on student learning, rather than to shame schools or systems, Caldwell said. Most school systems shifted to complete virtual learning in mid-March 2020 and continued in that fashion for the rest of that academic year, and many schools have used virtual and in-person learning this year, while also contending with student absences due to positive COVID-19 tests and quarantines due to possible exposure.
By this coming August, scheduled to be the start of the 2021-22 academic year for Whitfield County Schools, "some (students) won't have been in a classroom since March of 2020 (because of COVID-19)," Karey Williams, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, explained earlier this year. "There are (students) who are going to be behind."