Some educators work with actual kids, while some work with the idea of kids. The two things are quite different, which is sometimes a real problem.

The overly inflated importance of standardized tests has always illustrated this. Policy makers put huge significance on test numbers and tend to make sweeping generalizations based on the quick snapshots tests provide. But those in charge of actual children realize that every young brain is far more complex than their penciled-in ovals on a high-stress day.

So what about penciled-in ovals in a high-stress year? This year is just different. And how important are standardized tests to you right now in the middle of all this craziness?

They’re not at all to me. Both of my children are in the Madison County School System. I picked up my daughter Monday to quarantine for two weeks after a classmate tested positive. She was not pleased. My son was recently sick and had to go get tested for coronavirus. Thankfully, it came back negative. But a positive in the house seems inevitable.

Of course, I want my children to do well in school, but honestly, I just want us to get through this school year as healthily as we can with at least a little bit of our sanity left intact. These days are unusually stressful for us — all of us.

And yeah, standardized tests are pretty far down my list of gripes in the world at the moment. I’m typically not spending a huge amount of mental energy on the topic. Still, I was pretty annoyed last week to learn that Betsy Devos, U.S. Secretary of Education, indicated in a Sept. 3 letter to states that she will likely deny the requests of states for waivers on standardized testing this year.

It irritates me, because it seems like such a misplaced priority in this strange moment.

“Make no mistake. If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come,” said Devos. “Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment.”

I’m sorry, but my son and daughter will not be affected for “years to come” by missing a few days of long and stressful test taking in a uniquely long, stressful year. That statement by Devos seems overly inflated with grandiosity and out of touch with day-to-day reality. I understand that this testing feels like a big deal to people sitting in a far-off office contemplating data and rankings. But whatever the “rubric” shows is not on my mind right now. I’m far more concerned with day-to-day logistics and the emotional well being of my own children, as well as those around us. Meanwhile, so many teachers now have to juggle lessons for those in their classrooms and those in quarantine.

Education is absolutely important. It is vital to our lives. Every child needs the chance for a good education. And I feel fortunate for the opportunities I got. I’m also grateful that I came along before the standardized test craze. I took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) as an elementary school student, but it wasn’t something that stressed me out whatsoever, because it “wasn’t for a grade.” I remember being told that, and I remember holding that thought through the whole process.

Georgia sought a waiver this year from federal testing mandates, like the one approved during the spring when schools shut down. This is sensible. Consider this: Even if you put a lot of stock in standardized test numbers, how reliable will data be this year when a large segment of students are forced to stay home and quarantine for varying time periods, or while many students attend school only online, or while a number of students are out during the actual testing period, or when some students are disproportionately led by substitute teachers this year compared to other students, or when one state is slammed with the virus while another isn’t? Or when one school or school system is much sicker than another? I could go on.

Are we going to stick with the idea of enforcing accountability through high-stakes testing when so much is out of control? It’s not just bad priorities. It’s bad math. It will be data with too many variables to hold weight.

Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods, a Republican, was dismayed to learn of Devos’ plan to deny waivers.

“It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom, and will be a detriment to public education,” said Woods.

Madison County School Superintendent Michael Williams agreed.

“I’m in full agreement with him (Woods) in this situation,” said Williams at the Sept. 8 county school board meeting. “The feds — they need to come be a part of the school system. They need to come sit in the buildings and work with kids and deal with what we’re dealing with and understand that testing is not the most important thing right now.”

Why doesn’t the county school board get to make this call, or at least the state school board?

Well, have you caught on to the reality that “local control” is malleable in the U.S.A.? It’s in fashion when a state or federal leader wants to pass off a hard decision to the locals. Emphasizing “local control” becomes the “dignified” way of bypassing hard calls. We’ve seen that abdication of duty on making tough calls related to coronavirus and epidemiological issues. But the mantra of “local control” is quickly abandoned when a leader desires power, such as in denying states the right to make their own call on testing in a tough time.

I often think grandiose pronouncements from on high have more to do with maintaining the importance of an office holder than in serving real-life citizens. This is just the latest example.

I put the most trust in the judgment of those who work with actual kids. Anyone specializing in the big-picture idea of kids can be an assistance. But they shouldn’t strong-arm those who work day to day, face to face with kids. When they do, then their oval box gets penciled in my brain as an “F.” That's a shame, because I want to see the overall experience be an "A" — which is about far more than numbers.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at zach@mainstreetnews.com.

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