Milestones scores show Georgia schools still climbing out of COVID depths

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera shares a snapshot of his district's MAP Growth scores while explaining results on the Georgia Milestones during an assembly with teachers at the Marietta Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc,com)



Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera shares a snapshot of his district's MAP Growth scores while explaining results on the Georgia Milestones during an assembly with teachers at the Marietta Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc,com)

New Milestones test results indicate that some scores are recovering after the academic losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the gains are not equally distributed.

Younger students tended to score better on their 2023 tests than their peers did a year earlier. But older students didn’t do so well, particularly in high school, where as a whole they actually lost ground.

English language arts and math are the only routinely tested subjects from third grade into high school.

On a statewide level, the percentage of third grade students who scored at least proficient rose about 3 points in English and 3 points in math. By comparison, that percentage for high school students in English fell by 3 points and in math by 1 to 2 points depending upon the subject (high school students are tested in Algebra 1 and coordinate algebra).

Students generally fared better in English than in math, with the exception of those in high school and in fourth grade.

State officials can’t explain the discrepancies though they believe a recent focus on literacy for younger students may have contributed to the gains in English, particularly in third grade.

“Our Georgia school districts have made strong investments in early literacy,” said Allison Timberlake, who is in charge of testing for the Georgia Department of Education. She said school districts across the state often used their federal COVID-19 aid funding to give their teachers training in literacy education.

A report last year by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education found that 4 out of 5 school districts were spending their federal pandemic aid money on training, with 77% of it focused on literacy.

Fulton County Schools budgeted $90 million on its Every Child Reads initiative. And Marietta City Schools put $7 million into hiring 40 reading specialists.

The districts have a head start on new state mandates to overhaul teacher training and curriculum in line with a vast body of scientific research known as the “science of reading.” Marietta also has benefited from philanthropic funding and collaboration with a hospital and other groups to implement a literacy initiative starting at birth.

Lawmakers and other observers are holding Marietta up as a model.

Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera thinks the literacy training is one reason the system’s proficiency rate on the English language arts test rose dramatically in third grade. The rate for students scoring proficient or better from the prior year on the test, which measures reading and writing, rose 12.8 percentage points. That is nearly five times the state average increase of 2.6 points.

Marietta third graders are doing better than in 2019.

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera explains why more students are scoring better on their English Milestones tests during an assembly at the Marietta Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Ty Tagami/

Credit: Ty Tagami

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Credit: Ty Tagami

“We have incredible gains,” Rivera told an assembly of teachers on Wednesday, two days before the state’s official release of the 2023 Milestones data. “They’re changing outcomes for children and writing a story here in Marietta that is truly special.”

The other reason he offered: Hiring literacy specialists allows for smaller student-teacher ratios during reading sessions. That, in turn, allows teachers to focus on the specific skills each student is lacking.

One expert said it was too soon to attribute the gains in English test scores to any one cause.

Tim Sass, a Georgia State University economics professor, is part of a team that has been studying results from other tests in three metro area districts. Kids who were behind before the pandemic have done worse since, he said, adding that family situations such as the death of a parent, job loss or eviction played a role in outcomes.

“I think the results are promising,” he said of the district-level performances on the English Milestones. “But we really don’t know yet what’s driving those numbers.”

In Marietta, Rivera’s news for his teachers wasn’t all good: He told them the results weren’t so great among older students. The system had a 6.1-point drop among eighth graders scoring proficient or better on their English test from the previous year. Only 36.6% performed at that level, down from 46.2% before the pandemic.

“Hey, middle and high school: We’ve got work to do here,” Rivera said. “Because these kids are not only not reaching their fullest potential. They’re not even on grade level.”

Among districts in the core of metro Atlanta, only two others, Buford City Schools and Fulton, were also performing better in third grade English than they did before the pandemic.

For instance, Clayton County Public Schools outperformed the statewide gains on English in third grade this year yet fewer than 1 in 5 students scored proficient or better — below the system’s rate in 2019.

And despite Marietta’s third grade English gains since the pandemic, the district has a long way to go. Less than half of third graders scored proficient or better on their 2023 English tests. Most core metro area districts have a similar problem.

Despite the rise in third grade math scores, Georgia’s proficiency rate remains below pre-pandemic levels. Among the core metro Atlanta school districts, only the third graders in Fulton and Marietta outperformed their 2019 peers.

And two metro area districts, Cobb County and Decatur, actually lost ground in third grade math this past year, adding to their pandemic deficits. Cobb’s rate fell to 50.4%, down from 52%; Decatur’s to 71.8%, down from 74.7%.

At least math in eighth grade improved. The Gwinnett County School District has made massive improvements since the pandemic, with a 22.7-point gain since 2019 and a 2.9-point gain this past year.

Still, only 44.9% of eighth graders there scored proficient or better on math on this latest round of tests.

And unlike Gwinnett, most metro area school districts had a smaller percentage of eighth graders meeting the math proficiency bar in 2023. Marietta led the losses, with a 13.5-point drop from the previous year.

The exception was tiny Buford, which gained more than 7 points in eighth grade math proficiency. Not only is that district performing above pre-pandemic levels on that metric, but it has the second-highest eighth grade math proficiency rate in the state. The 85.3% proficient or better rate trailed Bremen, west of metro Atlanta, by a couple of points.