Learn more about Georgia's plan to test more students online in the AJC's "5 things to know" series.
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s key student test to be all online this year

Georgia’s school districts are gearing up for the first attempt at doing all Georgia Milestones tests online. Despite glitches in past years moving toward that goal, most metro Atlanta school districts say they feel prepared to get through this year’s testing without any hiccups.

Georgia Department of Education officials feel the change makes sense, partly to bring students’ experience in line with a world where a computer keyboard and mouse are supplanting pencil and eraser.

The College Board rolled out an online-only version of its SAT college-entrance exam last year, for example, for other countries and 15 states. It and the ACT college test are adding more states to online versions for spring tests.

There’s also a financial reason: “If only 10% of Georgia students took Milestones on paper, that would cost $2 million,” said Allison Timberlake, DOE deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability. “Paper test forms, printing the test booklets, packaging and shipping all that paper is costly.”

Other positives are a reduced chance of cheating and fewer staffers needed to administer tests.

The Georgia Milestones — assessments designed for the state to see how students are being prepared to compete in ever-expanding global economy — were first administered in the 2014-2015 school year. They count toward either a student’s course or grade-level completion. When the tests were introduced, officials also laid out a plan to get test-takers 100 percent online by this year, starting with 30 percent online testing for the first year, and 80 percent online testing by the third year, 2016-2017.

“We worked over the last several years to provide significantly increased bandwidth to every school district in the state (100 Mbps of bandwidth for every district),” said Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Frick. “We’ve made a slow transition over a five-year period to online testing to ensure districts had the needed resources in place. We had 53% of districts testing online in 2015; 73% online in 2016; 85% online in 2017; and 88% online in 2018.”

Many parents and students said they have heard little or nothing about the online testing mandate, and preparation for this year’s testing has not been particularly different.

“I read something about it, but we have not really discussed,” said Ruy Aguilar, whose children attend DeKalb’s Peachtree Charter Middle School.

Natalie Stembel, a junior at DeKalb County’s Lakeside High School, said she has not noticed any different test preparation this year, other than changes to the exam schedule.

Michael Davis, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Kinglsey Elementary School, said while she won’t be doing Georgia Milestones for several more years, he has been preparing her for using digital devices at home.

“I work in the IT field, so I kind of engage her through some stuff … to get her used to computers and using electronics in general to kind of help her,” Davis said. “We introduced her to touch screens, I introduced her to a mouse. Next year, it will be more important. We will come into this and it will all be online.”

Georgia Department of Education officials believe districts were given adequate time and help to get all students testing online. The first round of grants came in 2014 in the form of upgrading infrastructure, said Chris Shealy, DOE director of technology. “In 2015, the focus was more on devices.” The state handed out $95 million in all.

Gwinnett County, the state’s largest district, “has invested a significant amount of capital and human resources to ensure we are ready for this year’s administration of Milestones. Over the past couple of years, GCPS has had 50% of our elementary and middle schools participating online for GMAS and 100% of our students for End Of Course tests,” said Jonathan Patterson, associate superintendent for Curriculum and Instructional Support.

Patterson said Gwinnett had to replace some older equipment and alter some schedules to accommodate this year’s testing. “As part of that preparation, the district and schools have purchased approximately 21,000 devices.”

Knox Phillips, the DeKalb County associate superintendent in the Office of Accountability, said the years given to districts to prepare for total online testing allowed them to work through many of the connectivity issues encountered when Milestones testing began in 2015.

“We’ve done a lot to phase it in,” he said. “I don’t foresee any major concerns.”

That’s a welcome change. From the beginning, Georgia school districts reported problems getting their Milestones testing completed online. In 2016, districts across the state cited trouble logging into the testing system, not having the network capacity for all students to be tested online. Some even complained of students having to restart the test more than halfway through after their work was not saved. The glitches forced the state to waive test results that could affect whether a student advances to the next grade or graduate.

Phillips said the need for students to share computers found DeKalb officials scrambling to get every student tested, but the district has been working toward getting a device in the hands of every student. He said most DeKalb middle and high school students have been taking the tests online since 2015, and the number of elementary students doing so has slowly increased.

On March 20, Phillips said the district performed a “stress test,” checking its network capacity. “What that did was allow us to test capabilities and management processes for handling the bulk online,” he said. No problems came up.

Clifford R. Jones, chief academic officer for Fulton County schools, said education sales tax (E-SPLOST) funds were used to supply middle and high school students with devices. “These resources help with access to technology and reduce the potential disruption to instructional time during testing,” he said. “It was primarily grades 3-8 that needed to make the transition; we were already near 100% online administration for the pre-Georgia Milestones high school examination (the EOCT).”

Douglas County had every student testing online last year.

“We were even pretty close the year before that,” said Todd Hindmon, executive director of technology. “Everybody gets nervous around this time because so much is at stake, but this is the best way to learn how to adjust to the changing world.”

Hindmon added Douglas County has been preparing students for a digital transition for more than a decade.

“Most of our students work on laptops now,” he said. “Every district is different. We have our own fiber optics network so we fixed our issues with bandwith years ago.”

There are potential drawbacks to all-online testing. Teachers won’t be able to use the computers set up for the testing, Patterson, in Gwinnett, explained. “For teachers whose courses are based on computer usage, such as computer science, this will have a significant impact.”

School officials agree that the most important factor in successful implementation is the human resources.

“Throughout the year, teachers have been working with their students in the FCS online assessment platform in preparation for the online administration of Milestones,” said Fulton’s Jones. “Most importantly, our teachers are central to instruction, not devices. The key factor in all preparations is the interaction between the students and teachers who see them through the entirety of the learning process, which includes testing.”

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