We know Georgia's new state tests are harder. But are they better?

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow. The Institute’s new study, "Evaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments," is available here.

By Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio

A wise old African saying cautions that “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Back in 2013, Georgia policymakers made a hasty decision to go it alone on standardized testing, pulling out of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC). States are — and should be — in charge of such matters, and the authority of local lawmakers should be respected. But it’s worth asking whether this particular decision did a disservice to Georgia’s children.

That’s one possible inference from a new study published by our organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — the first independent, comprehensive evaluation ever undertaken of PARCC and competing tests. Our analysts — highly experienced educators and content assessment experts — found that PARCC indeed delivers on its promise to be a high-quality, challenging assessment that’s well matched to the new standards that Georgia and most other states adopted in 2010.

This is a significant accomplishment. The standardized tests that most states had been using previously were criticized for decades, and for good reason. They were mostly cheap, low-level, fill-in-the-blank tests that were easy to game and that encouraged teachers to spend endless classroom hours on mindless test-prep. (In Atlanta and some other places, sadly, they also proved susceptible to cheating.)

Georgia introduced its new Milestones tests last year, but there has not been an independent evaluation of their quality.

By 2010, when the Common Core initiative emerged, policymakers in Georgia and most other states had recognized these problems and set out to address them. Their solution was to replace the old tests with “next generation” assessments like PARCC and the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) test. About half of states administered one of these two tests in 2014-15 — and these turned out to be, by no small margin, the highest-rated tests in our evaluation.

Along the way, however, the Common Core became politically radioactive, which led some states, including Georgia, to bail on the common assessments, even while holding the line on the underlying standards.

Today, nobody can be sure whether the alternative test that Georgia has adopted — known as “Milestones” — is a good one, as there’s never been an independent evaluation of it such as the one just completed for PARCC and the other national exams. Peach State policymakers should commission one, pronto.

Objective reviewers — including Georgia’s teachers and other content and assessment experts — should determine whether the tests place sufficient emphasis on the most important content needed for college and career readiness and whether they expect all students to demonstrate the full range of thinking skills called for by the rigorous standards that Georgia’s schools are supposed to be implementing.

If the answers are anything less than an emphatic “yes,” state officials might consider adopting individual test items from PARCC (or SBAC) in order to beef up the Milestones exams without ceding control of content to a multi-state organization.

Given the powerful effects that tests have on what happens in schools, the crucial criterion for judging them is simply put: does the test encourage the kind of curriculum and instruction we want for children? In the case of the PARCC and SBAC tests, the answer from our review is “yes.”

Standardized tests are not universally loved but they’re here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. They continue to drive classroom practice and are used to evaluate schools, principals, and teachers. With so much riding on them, we ought to take the time to get them right. Especially if we want our children to go far in life.

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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.