Milestones scores confirm the impact of COVID-19 on Georgia students

Students wearing face masks get a tour of their new school during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta, Monday, August 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Students wearing face masks get a tour of their new school during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta, Monday, August 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Georgia education officials released the results of state standardized tests Monday that confirm what many feared: students lost a lot of ground during the pandemic.

How much ground remains open to debate.

A significant number of the 1.3 million students old enough to be tested on the Milestones didn’t take them, skipping more than 800,000 of the exams given in English, math, science and social studies. The low participation rate has fueled doubts about the aggregate scores for schools, school districts and the state overall.

The tests are first given in third grade, where about a fifth of the state’s students opted out. Participation rates dropped from there, with about 40% of eighth-graders skipping the tests. High school turnout was lower.

Even so, the scores in Georgia follow the decline of those in other states, such as Louisiana and Tennessee, that have already released results.

“Regardless of who got tested, you’re going to see lousy scores,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational research and advocacy organization. To him, the scores surfacing across the country document a “learning catastrophe” depicted anecdotally over the many months of the pandemic. “It’s a bleak picture. There’re no two ways about it,” he said.

(Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

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Credit: Rebecca Wright

Georgia’s overall scores fell from the 2018-19 school year, the last time the tests were given. The percentage of failing students rose by 2 to 9 points, varying by grade level and subject.

The largest declines were in high school, where more students likely attended online.

Among the key measures of future success that many observers look for is the performance in reading and writing in third grade.

In metro Atlanta, Clayton County saw the largest increase in the proportion of students — 23 percentage points — who performed in the lowest quartile for English Language Arts, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. These “beginning learners” didn’t learn the necessary knowledge and skills for the subject and will need “substantial” help preparing for the next grade, according to the state’s rating system.

Cobb and DeKalb counties saw double-digit increases in third grade ELA failure rates while the rates rose less than 10 percentage points in Atlanta and Gwinnett County, the AJC found. Fulton County’s rate was little changed from 2019.

But the percentage of third-graders who actually took their ELA tests was lower than normal in most metro Atlanta districts, as low as 30% in Clayton.

Ordinarily, the federal government wants participation rates of at least 95% but the requirement was not enforced last school year.

There were no consequences for opting out either. The scores were stripped of their influence over high school course grades, and over decisions about the promotion or retention of younger students and in evaluations of teachers and school principals.

In a statement accompanying the release of the scores, the Georgia Department of Education warned about using them for comparisons with pre-pandemic results.

“Georgia Milestones was designed to measure instruction during a typical school year, and 2020-2021 was anything but,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said.

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The U.S. Department of Education waived the testing requirement in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 first shuttered schools. It required tests resume last school year but waived the use of the tests for accountability.

Allison Timberlake, who oversees testing for the Georgia Department of Education, saw few patterns in the data except for one detected by prior research at the national level: math slipped further than English. Last year, national scores from the MAP Growth assessments, a formative test used by more than 300 Georgia schools, showed reading more or less intact but math suffering, with the worst performance at the elementary school level.

Besides the questions about the statistical accuracy of the aggregate scores, their utility for each child is also in question. Do the scores accurately gauge what they learned — or didn’t learn — or are they more a reflection of test-taking amid a pandemic, or of the apathy that might come when everyone knows the scores don’t really matter?

“There’re so many different confounding factors that we won’t be able to tease apart,” said Dana Rickman, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy group. “What is this really measuring?”

Alison Cundiff, a seventh-grade English teacher, said about half of the students in her Gwinnett middle school attended online last year and skipped the Milestones. They tended to be the high-achievers.

A lot of students missed material during the frequent quarantines, she said. And their minds weren’t always focused when they were in class, something she thinks those analyzing the scores should keep in mind.

“I want them to consider some of the trauma these scores are reflecting,” Cundiff said. “Our principal told us that there were a significant number of kids at our school who lost family members during the pandemic.”

 (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Becky Slemons, mother of three in Decatur, said her two younger children had to skip testing while at home quarantining. Her oldest, now a high school freshman, was tested but she hasn’t seen the scores yet. He had one of the best academic years of his life despite spending more than half the year online, she said, and her younger two children had a teacher “who did everything he could do to catch them up.”

She doesn’t pay too much attention to such scores. She pays attention instead to what teachers tell her in report cards and in emails or conversations.

“The tests are fine. I think they’re going to have to take standardized tests. But we just don’t put a ton of stock in them in our household,” she said.

Parents should regard the results with skepticism, but should not completely dismiss them, advised Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, which consults with states, including Georgia, on the design and use of tests.

If the scores are worrisome or contradict expectations, talk with teachers after the first weeks of school. They get to know students quickly and will know within a month — sooner for younger kids — which of them have crucial gaps in knowledge, he advised.

“The worst thing people can do is try to remediate kids on everything they didn’t learn before. ... Because all the stuff you learn in certain grades you don’t need the next year,” he said. “If you try to remediate everything that kids didn’t learn the year before, then you’re lucky to start the regular school year by January.”

Select test results

A look at how metro Atlanta students performed on the lastest Milestones tests:

English Language Arts - Third grade

DISTRICT - percent tested; percent in bottom quarter (“beginning”); percent in top half (“proficient” and “distinguished”)


BUFORD CITY - 98%; 13%; 64 %

CHEROKEE COUNTY - 94%; 28%; 46%


CLAYTON COUNTY - 30%; %64; 14%

COBB COUNTY - 86%; 33%; 43%

DEKALB COUNTY - 56%; 55%; 25%

FORSYTH COUNTY - 91%; 17%; 59%

FULTON COUNTY * - 64%: 25%; 53%

GWINNETT COUNTY - 73%; 31%; 43%

MARIETTA CITY - 89%; 35%; 36%

Math - Eighth grade

DISTRICT - percent tested; percent in bottom quarter (“beginning”); percent in top half (“proficient” and “distinguished”)


BUFORD CITY - 93%; 8%; 72%

CHEROKEE COUNTY - 77%; 22%; 43%

CITY SCHOOLS OF DECATUR* - 44%; 14%; 51%

CLAYTON COUNTY * - 14%; 70%; 8%

COBB COUNTY - 51%; 28%; 37%

DEKALB COUNTY - 33%; 55%; 20%

FORSYTH COUNTY - 50%; 15%; 50%

FULTON COUNTY * - 28%; 28%; 41%

GWINNETT COUNTY - 45%; 39%; 30%

MARIETTA CITY * - 31%; 38%; 33%

Note: Georgia Milestones 2020-2021 results are reported with the percent of enrolled students tested. *Asterisks are reported in cases where the 2020-2021 tested population may not be representative of the total population based on prior achievement. Additional caution may be needed in interpretation and use in such cases. Visit the Georgia Department of Education website for more information on interpreting the 2020-2021 results of Georgia assessments.

Source: Georgia Department of Education and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution