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State School Superintendent Richard Woods says it's time to lift up, not label, our public schools
Richard Woods state school supt
Richard Woods, a 22-year public school educator and former small business owner, is Georgias school superintendent. - photo by File photo

Imagine if the success of your child – or your grandchild, niece or nephew, or next-door neighbor – was summed up entirely by their performance on a single end-of-year test.

Unfortunately, there are some who want Georgia’s accountability system for schools, the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), to function that way, relying overwhelmingly on students’ scores on a standardized test, instead of multiple indicators that capture the opportunities schools are providing for kids.

Many people reading this may not realize the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE), which I lead, is not the sole decision-maker regarding the CCRPI. There is excessive authority over the process delegated to entities outside the GaDOE.

This has led to a CCRPI that, while significantly improved, still does not line up with the feedback we’ve consistently gotten from parents, business leaders, and schools themselves – or with my 25 years of experience in education.

It’s time that I make it very clear what my position is regarding the CCRPI.

Though most agree tests have a role in K-12 education, even more agree that they shouldn’t be the single determining factor of a student’s or school’s success. Is this student engaged in their work? Are they showing up to school? Are opportunities – like fine arts, career tech, and accelerated coursework – being made available to them? Are they participating in class, completing projects, and learning to work as a team? These factors matter, too.

The principle that performance on high-stakes tests does not represent the sum of a child’s success is common sense – yet, sadly, that common sense wanes when deciding how to hold our districts and schools accountable.

 After the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states were afforded the opportunity to bring students, parents, educators, business partners, and community leaders together to craft a new plan for education.

In that spirit, we convened stakeholder feedback sessions across the state, conducted surveys, and created six working groups and a state advisory committee to draft the plan. Georgia’s Accountability ESSA working group held 13 meetings and spent countless hours discussing the nuts and bolts of the CCRPI.

Their work was challenging but their efforts paid off with some big improvements. In the past, attendance was set at six or more days (including excused absences) before a school started getting penalized; the group adopted the more realistic, national definition for chronic absenteeism.

They added a new indicator for elementary and middle schools that recognized the importance of access to opportunities like fine arts, world language, physical education, and career tech. I applaud the group’s work and efforts, and the work of our Accountability team at the GaDOE.

The biggest disappointment, following all of the working group’s efforts, was the realization that the improvements they could make were restricted by the fact that GaDOE does not have full authority to make improvements to the metric.

Even though ESSA didn’t mandate it, and though no state with top scores on the often lauded NAEP assessment uses it, state law required a 100-point scale. That scale could then easily and “logically” be used by others to assign letter grades to schools.

Proponents have trumpeted the 100-point scale mandate because of shallow claims that it’s easy for the public to understand. Notice, though, that it also produces what those proponents wanted all along – a way to rank and label schools, instead of having deeper conversations. For those who don’t believe in public education, it sets up a system where a district or school has 89 ways to look bad and only 11 ways to look good.

In reality, the “simple” 100-point scale provides limited information for the public. What’s the difference between an 83 school and a 79 school? One is “better” than the other. Though the elements of the metric can be good and pure, the powers that be can manipulate the weights to form a pre-determined fate for the large majority of our schools.

Proponents manipulate the feelings of public comfort and familiarity by using a 100-point scale, but the simplicity and clarity of that scale have been vastly overstated. Look at states like Louisiana and Florida – which, interestingly enough, have been the initial drivers of education reforms later pushed by Georgia policymakers (think Louisiana’s “Recovery School District,” or Florida’s heavy emphasis on test-based accountability). Schools in those states can earn a lower percentage of available points to achieve the same letter grades schools have to work so hard for in Georgia.

Parents see a letter grade but according to a UGA study, many Georgia schools would actually rank a full grade level higher using Louisiana’s and Florida’s accountability systems.

The fact is, when Georgia is compared to other states, scores at face value are compared across state lines and no one gets into the details of the calculations. Business and industry and realtors do not know the indicators or weights of Georgia’s accountability system or those of surrounding states – but I bet you they compare the scores as if the calculations were exactly the same across state lines. With the false claim of rigor, our state is losing its competitive edge.

Most Georgians agree that our students – and schools – are more than a score. But even with positive improvements, we still have a metric that gives roughly 80 percent of its weight to high-stakes, end-of-the-year tests, with only the 20-some percent left over given to opportunities like fine arts, world languages, physical education, career pathways, dual enrollment, AP/IB, work-based learning/apprenticeships, attendance and graduation rates. These are things students, parents, business and industry, and educators’ value.

Think of the most prestigious schools or universities. They likely market their experienced teachers, small class sizes, and catalog of opportunities – high-stakes test scores are a footnote. However, for Georgia’s public schools and districts, the state has the reverse approach. Why?

Testing has a place – but it must be a proper place. We are seeking out ways to ensure Georgia’s assessment system truly informs teaching and learning, but we must give equal priority to reducing the number of high-stakes tests, and the emphasis on high-stakes testing in the accountability system, or our efforts will not produce results.

The public – students, parents, and communities – should know how their districts and schools are performing, but we need a wider and deeper measurement of performance that paints a full and true picture, not one capped by a 100-point scale or oversimplified by a letter grade.

Georgia’s graduation rates are rising, along with our ACT, SAT, AP, and NAEP scores. We were recently ranked 11th in the nation for K-12 achievement. Combine that with expanded opportunities for students – in the fine arts, STEM and STEAM, career and technical education, agriculture, and computer science – and it’s clear Georgia’s K-12 public schools are succeeding. We deserve an accountability metric that is not disconnected from these realities and reflects the success we are seeing.

The Georgia Department of Education must finally be given the flexibility and authority to make true changes and act in the best interest of our kids. Our students – and schools – deserve a fair measure of their success.

Our mission is to prepare children for life, not a test.

According to 

Richard Woods was born in Pensacola, Florida and while growing up in a military family, lived in California, Hawaii and Virginia before moving to Georgia. He graduated from Fitzgerald High School, and went on to receive a Bachelor’s Degree from Kennesaw State University and a Master’s Degree from Valdosta State University.

Woods has over 25 years of pre-k through 12th grade experience in public education.  Woods was a high school teacher for 14 years, serving as department chair and teacher mentor. During his tenure, he was also selected as Teacher of the Year. For eight years Woods served in various administrative roles such as assistant principal, principal, curriculum director, testing coordinator, pre-k director, and alternative school director.

Woods also brings a business background to the superintendent’s position, having been a purchasing agent for a national/multi-national laser company and a former small business owner.

He and his wife Lisha, a retired 30-year educator, are long-time residents of Tifton and have been married for 27 years.

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