New experiment could change how Georgia tests students

But swapping tests won’t change their usage as key accountability factor for schools



Georgia is embarking on a pilot program that could end the high-stakes and high-anxiety testing students face at the end of each school year. Neither teachers nor parents enjoy the annual ritual that consumes most of the spring as classrooms shift to test prep and practice exams to ready students for the Georgia Milestones.

The Milestones test assesses more than how much students learn each year; scores also influence the evaluations of schools, principals and teachers. Administered in April and May, the test suffers an obvious flaw; results come back too late in the year to provide teachers with insights on how to modify instruction.  (The AJC will get Milestones statewide scores on Friday so expect a slew of stories.)

In some schools, the Milestones test becomes an unhealthy focal point as administrators emphasize its importance with pep rallies, score sheets in the hallways and letters home urging a good night's sleep before test days and a pocketful of peppermints to sharpen focus.

Under a five-year pilot program approved this month by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, smaller and more frequent testing will replace the Milestones in 21 Georgia school districts. (More districts can join on if they choose.) The goal of the pilot is to spur testing alternatives that provide real-time feedback that teachers can put to immediate use in shaping instruction.

The districts represent two collectives, each of which will give a series of interim assessments throughout the year that will then be rolled into a single summative score. The intent is to serve up tests in smaller doses so they're less climatic and nerve-wracking than a final exam and more akin to a quiz or chapter test.

A dozen districts belong to the Putnam County Consortium, Putnam, the city schools in Calhoun, Vidalia and Cook, Dougherty, Evans, Fayette, Floyd, Liberty, McIntosh, Oglethorpe and Pike counties. Making up the Georgia MAP Partnership are Marietta and Dalton city schools and the Barrow, Clayton, Floyd, Jackson, Jasper, Polk and Haralson schools.

Like all states, Georgia has always given exams, but the test-based school accountability imposed on schools by the 2001 No Child Left Behind law attached serious and escalating consequences, including possible retention of the student and restructuring of the school. Suddenly, a single test defined the worth of a school, teacher and student.

In 2015, Congress authorized a kinder successor to No Child, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which contained fewer triggers for draconian consequences and discarded the "failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress" label that became education's Scarlet Letter.

ESSA still required annual exams in grades 3-8 and high school for accountability purposes. However, it also offered up to seven states the opportunity -- and challenge-- to develop more innovative ways to document student performance. Georgia is among four states where districts rose to the challenge and offered up possible alternatives.

"Teachers and parents in Georgia don't like tests to be used as a hammer," said Matt Jones, chief of staff of the Georgia Department of Education. DOE will oversee this experiment, and both Jones and Allison Timberlake, deputy superintendent for assessment & accountability, are optimistic students will benefit.

“Yes, there is going to be more testing,” said Timberlake. “But it will be more instructionally useful. Educators will get more value out of it.”

The two district consortia that won federal approval still have to show the feds that the results of their homegrown tests are sending the same signal as Milestones of how much students know how to do, said Timberlake. Once validity and comparability between the tests have been established, those 21 districts can dispense with Milestones and assess their students their own way.

(Pilot districts will still give Milestones to the extent necessary to continue the yearly comparability analyses required by US ED and in Milestones-assessed grades or content areas for which there are no tests in the pilots.)

The federal pilot allows a two-year extension so it could be seven years before Georgia selects and scales up one of these approaches statewide.

What will not change -- at least for now -- is that the results of these new tests, as with the Milestones, will count for 70 to 80 percent of school accountability, said Jones.

A Georgia school's A-F letter grade is based on its College and Career Ready Performance Index, which looks at Milestones scores, student academic growth on the test, graduation rates, and other factors.

"Those high-stakes uses don't change even if you swap out the assessment instrument," Jones said. "I do think there is room in Georgia to lessen the high-stakes nature of our assessments. We want to continue to have that conversation. Testing is always going to have a role in accountability, but we want to make sure it’s a more balanced role than we have now."