Many students struggle to pass new Georgia Milestones tests

Students hit a wall when they took the new Georgia Milestones tests for the first time last spring, with more failing.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s analysis of the performance of one group of students, for example, shows more struggling to meet basic standards than with the old tests the Milestones replaced: at least 97 percent of elementary schools with 10 or more students taking the third grade English test had a higher failure rate than the year before, the final time the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) was given.

“We have a lot of kids who are at the beginning level,” said Bill Caritj, the Atlanta Public Schools testing chief.

“Beginning” means failing under the new grading system. The Georgia Department of Education released the scores Nov. 16.

Students in districts with high poverty struggled the most. For instance, in DeKalb County 43.7 percent failed third grade English while in Atlanta Public Schools 41.3 percent failed. In other major metro districts — Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties — about a quarter of that group failed.

» COMPLETE RESULTS: View your school's test scores here

» COUNTY-BY-COUNTY: Cobb | DeKalb | Fulton | Gwinnett

» GET SCHOOLED BLOG: APS statement | DeKalb looks ahead | Test purpose? | GaDOE response

» RELATED STORIES: How useful are tests? | Overhaul proposal | Self-paced learning

The Milestones test students from third through 12th grade in English, math and other core subjects.

Dana Rickman, a researcher with the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said the increased failure rate is consistent with what national assessments have been saying for years: that the old tests were too easy.

“We knew [pass rates] were going to go down,” Rickman said. Georgia’s new test results are more reflective of what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “gold standard” test given to a sample of U.S. students, has been saying: that the pass rates on Georgia’s old tests were inflated.

The Georgia Milestones replaced both the CRCTs and the high school End of Course Tests, which counted for a fifth of students’ grades.

This was a trial year for the Milestones. The results establish a baseline which will be used to calculate student growth in coming years. The next round of scores will be meaningful to students and teachers in spring 2016, when half of teachers’ performance evaluations are expected to be based on how much their students’ scores improved.

Parents of students who fail the reading component of the English exam in third, fifth and eighth grade must have a conference with their school about repeating the school year. The same goes for students who fail math in fifth and eighth grade.

When the tests once again count for a fifth of a high school course grade, fewer students may earn the credits they need to graduate. The trial run, along with the elimination of the high school graduation test, may help explain the sharp increase in the number of diplomas handed out last spring. Officials reported this month that the state graduation rate soared more than 6 percentage points with the class of 2015. The rates in all metro Atlanta districts rose as well.

State education officials warned to expect a higher failure rate with the Milestones, and early statewide results in September indicated those warnings were warranted.

Melissa Fincher, the official in charge of testing at the Georgia Department of Education, said state officials knew their old tests were too easy.

“I don’t think anybody needs to overreact when they see the scores,” she added. “We’ll see fewer students who hit that proficient mark. It’s not because they know less, it’s because we expect more from them.”

To prepare parents for the new Milestones results, metro school districts sent them letters.

“Under the CRCT, many students were labeled as proficient when, in reality, they may not have fully mastered the standards,” interim Fulton County Superintendent Ken Zeff wrote in one. “If we are going to address students’ needs, then we must be honest about how much they really know.”

District officials said they would offer more tutoring and other help to students who need it. Caritj, the APS testing chief, said Atlanta will be deploying educational technology that is making it easier to zero in on student weaknesses. He said the district will also be focusing on teacher training. “We’re focusing on helping them get stronger,” he said.

Bertis Downs, an Athens father of public school students, said Georgia is following other states that ratcheted up the difficulty of tests, and he predicted that test opposition will grow as a result. The tests accomplish two things, said Downs, a member of the Network for Public Education, a national group that opposes high-stakes tests: they are used to grade teachers and for “ginning up public panic that our schools are failing. I reject that logic and I think most parents and teachers will too.”

The Milestones results come on the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement that it wants to cap test-taking at 2 percent of classroom time. State Superintendent Richard Woods was elected in 2014 in part on his concerns about testing. Several months ago, he called for an audit to determine how the state and local districts could reduce the amount of testing. The results are expected next spring. Any pullback on state tests likely would require approval of Georgia lawmakers.

Darris Rollins, whose son is a sophomore at Westlake High School in South Fulton, said he expects scores to rise in the future.

He doesn’t want to see teachers using classroom time to “teach the test,” he said. “I hope whatever we do in the end, it’s for the betterment and education of the children.”

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