Georgia Milestones: Are state tests inappropriate for young students?

Parent Carol Kirshner opted her third-grade daughter out of the Georgia Milestones. In this detailed essay, Kirshner explains why she feels the test is inappropriate.

(For another view, read this teacher's piece about why opting out undermines classrooms.)

Her main point: Testing sessions for the Milestones in the early grades range from 60-90 minutes, which far exceeds what we should expect from a normal student.

As a rule, Kirshner says research suggests average students have a sustained attention span of 3-5 minutes for every year they’re alive. So, the average 9-year-old in third grade would have an attention span between 27-45 minutes. It is not until seventh grade that a child at the higher end of normal (roughly 20 percent of students considering a traditional bell curve) would have a 60 minute attention span, she says.

Kirshner is not arguing Georgia abandon state assessments. Instead, she wants the developers of the Milestones to shorten the testing session times and give adequate age-appropriate breaks, saying, “I feel this simple act would go a long way to improving the Milestones testing process and deliver more accurate data on how are schools are performing.”

By Carol Kirshner

I requested to opt-out my child out of the Georgia Milestones testing because the 60-90 minute testing session time is developmentally inappropriate for third graders.  In turn, the developmentally inappropriate testing session time significantly compromises the accuracy of the assessment.

The testing environment becomes untenable for children when one also considers the trickle-down effects of the high-stakes associated with test, including a role in determining teacher and administrator performance, repercussions with home values in the school’s neighborhood, and the potential to impact a student’s promotion to the next grade.

The high-stakes nature and the developmentally inappropriate testing session create a potentially harmful situation that has not been studied enough to determine the incidence, nature, severity, and long-term consequences of any negative behavioral, emotional, and physical health that arise from the testing environment.

Georgia Milestones Employs Developmentally Inappropriate Testing Session Times

A large number of scientific publications have noted the development of the prefrontal cortex in the brain in involved in many aspects of executive behavioral control, including attention, strategic behavioral planning and emotional impulse control, short-term information retention, and action selection (Arnsten & Rubia, 2012, McClellan et. al., 2013). Development of the prefrontal cortex persists throughout childhood, experiences a phase of neuronal pruning during adolescence, and then finally reaches maturity during early adulthood.

It is widely accepted by the scientific and medical community that attention and other executive functions are a developmental process that is, in part, based on biological development of brain structures. Specifically in regards to attention span in normal children, most medical and psychological professionals agree it is calculated by adding 3-5 minutes per year of age.  Subsequently, a typical third grade student can sustain their attention is 27-45 minutes.

Milestones Sessions Require Students to be Attentive for 60-90 Minutes, Double the Expected Levels of Normal

Furthermore, the Georgia Milestone testing times fall outside of industry standards. Milestones testing times exceeds other commonly used tests, including the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Tennessee's TCAP and the Smarter Balance test used by 15 states.

Milestones session times exceed those required for older students for college placement, such as those for the SAT, GRE, and even the LSAT for entry into law school. The MCAT for entry into medical school is the only test whose session testing times exceed the Georgia Milestones test.

2017 End of Grade Milestones Assessment Compared to College & Grad School Admissions Tests

*It is important to note most college assessments do not penalize a student for leaving questions blank.

The Developmentally Inappropriate Testing Session Times Make the Georgia Milestones an Inaccurate Assessment of Student Academic Achievement

Asking children to sustain their attention past normative expectations in a rigid, traditionally proctored testing environment compromises optimal test performance. Subsequently, the results of the tests cannot be assumed to be an accurate reflection of a child’s academic attainment.

Milestones testing can be compared to asking toddlers to move a 100-pound weight.  They simply have not grown enough to accomplish the task.  Furthermore, it is irrational to automatically assume toddlers are weak, damaged, or underdeveloped simply because they cannot move the 100-pound object.

Specifically, in regards to the 70-90 minute writing section, there is research indicating attention plays a huge role in successfully completing that task. In 2002, Hooper, Swartz, Wakely, de Kruif, and Montgomery argued attentional control plays a significant role in executive processes that coordinate strategic writing -- planning, monitoring, and revising of writing.  Specifically in the case of writing portion of the test, we can use the findings of Hooper and colleagues to logically infer because the attentional requirement is double what we can expect from a normal third grader, the testing session time would negatively impact performance and deliver an inaccurate assessment of student academic attainment.

The High-Stakes Nature of the Test May Increase the Risk of Harm to Students

Despite the platitudes offered to teachers, administrators, parents, and students to subordinate the importance of the Milestones test, everyone knows the Milestones is a high-stakes test.

Teacher performance is partly assessed based on student performance on the test. Additionally, administrators are judged on their school’s College and Career Ready Performance Index. Furthermore, many parents seek homes in areas with schools that have high CCRPI, as it is a key influencer in home value. Finally, parents, teachers, and administrators understand the Milestones results play a role in the promotion status of students. With these facts in mind, Milestones are high-stakes tests that clearly impact most of the adults in a child’s life.

Many teachers and administrators are aware of the potential negative emotional impact of high-stakes tests on students. Subsequently, they try to minimize anxiety, apprehensions, and fear through verbal discussions and encouraging, hopeful statements. However, there are a number of behaviors that are incongruent to verbal efforts to diffuse negative, fearful emotions.

They are:

•Repeated practice sessions in the classroom setting

•Months of verbally drawing attention to efforts to teach toward the test. “You will see this sort of thing on the Milestones.”

•Subtle and sometimes overt statements that indicate a child will not be able to progress to the next grade if he or she does not do well on the Milestones test.

•Children thrive with consistency, while incongruities often cause anxiety. To assume children are immune and unaware of the incongruities is ridiculous. Children may not be able to express what they are feeling and why they feel it, but we should not assume that it is not having a negative emotional effect on children. To them it is as simple as “If it does not matter, then why are we talking about it?”

I recognize not all stress and anxiety is harmful. However, mostly due to Georgia ignoring the idea that there may be any negative emotional impacts associated with the Milestones, there is insufficient data and research available on the topic to ensure that the test will not be harmful to my child. As a parent and child advocate, I wonder if the sustained and unrelenting focus on the Milestones test combined with the developmental inappropriateness of the testing environment places children in a position to perform poorly and creates excessive stress and anxiety in some students.

There are anecdotal reports of pre-test insomnia, student preoccupation with test performance, anxiety, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, and crying. Furthermore, it is not unusual for students to cry during testing sessions. To me, these are big red flags that need to be investigated. Specifically, the state needs to track and research the incidence, nature, and severity of the stress associated with the tests. Additionally, they need to investigate and identify who is at risk for toxic, harmful stress levels.

Finally, for me to be assured the test will not cause harm to my child, the state should gather data that can help us understand the long-term consequences of sustained and toxic stress related to Milestones testing.

However, we can draw some conclusions from the ample research that elucidates the impact of harmful and toxic stress on the minds and bodies developing children. Negative consequences of stress in children include: impaired behavioral and emotional development, behavioral impulsivity, social isolation, impaired brain development, poor self-esteem, depression, and persistent situational anxiety. Furthermore, childhood stress can contribute to a number of health consequences later in life, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. As such, it is unethical to place children at possible risk without having any mechanism in place to assess for and intervene in potentially harmful situations.

It is my fear as a parent the combination of the high-stakes nature of the test and the inappropriate testing environment will create significant sustained emotional distress and could possibly lead to persistent test-anxiety. Given these tests will be required for the duration of our children's public school careers, testing may also have possible negative health and developmental implications. I find it unethical and potentially cruel the state of Georgia lacks a set of fail-safes to monitor for and ensure the safety of my child and other students.

In conclusion, I agree with the U.S. Department of Education’s position that appropriate testing is a powerful tool in education that can be used to assess progress in learning and ensure the fulfillment of high educational standards (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

Unfortunately, the Georgia Milestones Assessment System is administered in a developmentally inappropriate format for third-grade students. This compromises the ability of the tests to generate results that are an accurate assessment of student academic achievement.

Furthermore, there is insufficient information and data available to determine the tests are safe and do not produce harmful long-term effects through the induction of stress and anxiety.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.