Testing and technology in Georgia schools: Who will watch the watchers?

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky takes on the testing industry and the inaugural run of Georgia's latest remake of its state exams, the Georgia Milestones. The Milestones came under heavy criticism this year for serious technology glitches that led the manufacturer to compensate the state.

Smagorinsky hits upon the main problem with the new tests in Georgia -- the lack of time to pilot the tests before rolling them out statewide, especially given the move to online administration.

By Peter Smagorinsky.

Much has been made of the current trend toward constant standardized testing of students in school. These concerns include the mismatch between authentic teaching and standardized assessment, the encroachment of government into the process of schooling, the recognition that most government-imposed curriculum-and-assessment plans have little relation to research findings, the inattention to the role of poverty in educational achievement, and many other problems.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

I’ve recently talked with teachers from two communities in Georgia that are, in many ways, typical of cities across our state. They are not too big—neither has minor league sports teams, as do relatively large Macon and Rome. They are not too small to be left off state maps. Especially for the people who live in them, they are just right: Communities neither especially rich nor especially poor, although with a wide enough range of parental affluence for teachers to find most of their students nonstandard.

My conversations with these teachers unearthed some remarkable aspects of the newest testing regimes: Georgia Milestones, End of Course Tests, graduation tests, and many more. In their schools, after spring break there is at least one test being administered to at least one group of students every day of school.

Some of the problems with their implementation are almost comically bizarre. EOCT data, for instance, aren’t returned until the following school year has begun, rendering them useless as EOCT evaluations. When satire is hard to distinguish from reality, it’s time to take a closer look and see what’s happening in this age of accountability—for students and teachers, that is. Those in charge of accountability apparently have no one to be accountable to, as this example demonstrates.

The fiasco of waiting until the following year for EOCT scores to be returned is just one of many absurdities afoot in this age of educational absurdity. Unfortunately, policymakers rarely ask teachers how the reforms are going. Rather, they just barge ahead with the next one without running a prototype with a pilot group to see how it works before going whole-scale.

A couple of years ago I met with one of Georgia’s leading legislative policymakers and a group of teachers to discuss public education. I was pleased to be invited, and primarily deferred to the teachers. My own limited contribution: Before you impose a high-stakes assessment system on the whole state, pilot it first with a volunteer district to see how it works under good conditions, then gradually expand the program as bugs are worked out.

But policymakers are much more concerned with rushing untested systems into place and holding the practitioners accountable for the results than holding themselves accountable for making the test reliable and valid before taking it to scale.

Here’s how that decision to charge forward with assessments such as the Georgia Milestones, such that they become the Georgia Millstones to the teachers charged with implementing it overnight, has worked in the real world.

Teachers in both systems that I have talked with recently say the same thing: the online testing infrastructure in their districts is insufficient to accommodate the extra layer of test-taking required by the state. In one district, the software itself failed, wasting a whole lot of instructional time with a test whose results were lost in the Ethernet.

In the other, the availability of bandwidth to support large groups of students taking online tests simultaneously brought the rest of the school to a halt when it came to using the Internet. This school is among the majority in Georgia whose budgets do not support running a full school year, resulting in 10-30 days struck from the calendar with teachers furloughed, that is, not paid, to align the funds in the budget with the salary commitment.

Schools that can’t afford to pay their teachers to teach a full year are in no position to invest heavily in Internet capacity so that students can reliably take tests online and, at the same time, allow teachers to send emails to parents, use their online gradebooks, and otherwise use web-based tools available to enhance their work. That capability is lost for weeks on end as students occupy bandwidth with testing, and even the availability for testing is fragile and spotty.

The state of Georgia has invested many tens of millions of dollars in developing web-based tests, enriching people from outside the schools, without investing in the schools themselves so that these tests may be taken with confidence that the scores will be available in a timely manner, or at all. Once again, the people at the policy level make the most vulnerable people in the system—teachers and their students—fully accountable for outcomes of their decisions, without providing them with the resources to do that work in good faith.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Juvenal posed the question, Quis custodiet ipros custodes?, or Who will watch the watchers? The problem and challenge of making the authorities accountable remains today. In rushing untested policies into practice without providing the resources to support their implementation, and then blaming teachers for the results, they make a farce out of one of our nation’s most serious and important commitments: the education of our next generation of citizens.

For that, they should be ashamed. But I’m not counting on it.