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Georgia to seek federal waiver on standardized tests

More than one in 10 Georgia school districts will use their own exams to gauge student progress, with the ultimate goal of substituting them for the state standardized tests.

The state board of education gave approval Thursday for 11 districts to join 10 previously approved to participate in the state’s “innovative” testing pilot program. That is only the first step in eliminating the Georgia Milestones. The U.S. Department of Education would have to approve any waiver of the Milestones, which are a federally-approved component of Georgia’s school monitoring system.

A goal of state legislators is to liberate more than these 21 districts from the state tests. Senate Bill 362, passed this year, calls on the Georgia Department of Education to pick the best tests that are comparable with the Milestones and develop them for statewide use. The chief advantage of the local tests is that they are given as small “formative” exams throughout the school year to track how students are doing, rather than as one big “summative” assessment at the end.

Educators often complain about the Milestones, considering them a time-consuming nuisance without a payoff. The biggest complaint: The Milestones are of little use to teachers because the results come after the school year, when it’s too late to help students who have fallen behind.

Marietta City Schools is among the districts participating in the pilot program, and the superintendent there, Grant Rivera, told state board members at a preliminary meeting Wednesday that his teachers want a useful test: “We have got to stop assessing for somebody else, and start assessing for our kids.”

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Marietta is working with nine other school districts to adapt a national test for state use. Their consortium, the Georgia MAP Assessment Partnership, is basing their exam on the MAP Test, a commercial product that Rivera said is already in use in 53 Georgia school districts. The questions would have to be adapted before the MAP could substitute for the Milestones as an accountability measure, though, and a representative of the NWEA, the global not-for-profit that created the test, told the state board it could take two or three years to do that.

This concerned Mike Royal, the state board member representing most of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties. He wants a test that still measures how well students have mastered the knowledge and skills laid out in Georgia’s educational standards.

“We are not willing to sacrifice accountability,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Even so, he and other board members were enthusiastic about the goal of giving teachers fresher data about their students while reducing the time spent on testing; he used a medical analogy, likening the Milestones to an “autopsy” when what teachers and students need is a “physical.”

The petition passed unanimously, with four state board members absent. A separate petition by the Cobb County School District also was approved. Cobb’s petition is based on a homemade test developed with teacher input, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said. The questions used by Cobb Metrics already align with the state standards, he said, though work must be done to ensure the results from the periodic tests can be “rolled up” into annual scores that are comparable to the Milestones. He hopes the federal government will allow Cobb to waive the Milestones, which would save weeks at the end of the school year currently devoted to testing.

A waiver “allows us to recoup, basically, a month of instructional days, which is just awesome,” he said after Thursday’s vote by the state board.

Kristie Brooks, an administrator for the Jasper County Charter System, which is part of the MAP partnership, said the approval is a boon for rural districts. Not only will teachers have timely data to guide instruction, she said, but they’ll have scores that show how their students compare nationally, since districts in other states use that test. “We’re just really excited about what this pilot’s going to do and where we’re going to go in the next five years,” she said.

Newton County also filed an independent petition, but it was withdrawn from the agenda due to unanswered state questions. The 11 districts approved Thursday join 10 approved in August as part of the Putnam County consortium, which is using an exam pioneered by the Putnam County School System.

The Georgia Department of Education will seek a federal waiver for all 21 school districts by the end of the year, a spokeswoman said. The state has been talking with the U.S. Department of Education and with a Washington consultant, said the spokeswoman, Meghan Frick. “As those conversations have continued we feel comfortable submitting an application that includes multiple innovative assessment systems in the pilot.”

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