The federal government will let some Georgia school districts substitute their own tests for standardized state tests. AJC FILE PHOTO

Some Georgia districts get to replace standardized tests

Georgia is joining a small group of states that have won tentative approval from the federal government to experiment with new ways of testing students.

If everything goes as planned, two groups comprising 21 Georgia school districts will be able to substitute their own homemade tests for the state standardized tests as soon as the coming school year. Before that can happen, the groups must produce evidence that the scores from their tests are “comparable” with the existing state tests and develop a way to measure literacy, which the current tests already do, but the new decision from the U.S. Department of Education is a major one for teachers in the affected districts, and eventually for the whole state.

The current state tests, called the Georgia Milestones, are required as a school accountability tool. Teachers see them as burdensome, saying they consume valuable time while raising stress levels without producing useful data. That forces schools to heap on other, voluntary tests that produce results they can use to guide instruction. Students get tired of all the testing, said Kelli De Guire, a high school teacher in Calhoun City Schools, one of the districts approved for the federal waiver.

“When they get test exhaustion, they don’t do their best, and I don’t blame them,” she said.

The waiver will eliminate weeks of extra testing in Calhoun and 11 other school districts in what Georgia’s federal application calls the Putnam County Consortium. A second consortium’s petition also was approved. Two metro Atlanta districts, Marietta and Clayton County, are part of that one, called the Georgia MAP Assessment Partnership. Students are the beneficiaries, a Clayton spokesman said, adding that district is “excited” about the new development.

One reason the home-grown tests are more useful is that the scores are generated quickly. They are more like quizzes than final exams — bite-sized tests given throughout the school year. By comparison, the scores from the Milestones taken last spring have not yet been released and aren’t expected until the end of July.

“If you’re going to do testing, it should be meaningful, and with the Milestones, we get the scores back months and months later, when they’re no longer relevant,” said Beth Knight, who teaches fourth grade in Cobb County.

Cobb has been developing its own testing system, which Knight uses weekly. The former county teacher of the year said the immediate feedback from those tests — she gets the scores as the students are taking them on computers — helps her figure out which children are having a problem with a particular concept. She then groups them together for lessons.

“As soon as I have two or three kids who are struggling with the same concept, then ‘boom, come over to the same table,’” she said. “Students are actually getting what they need.”

Cobb will continue using its tests, but must give them in addition to the Milestones: The district also submitted an application for a waiver, but it was denied. A letter from the U.S. Department of Education says Cobb’s “model does not meet a significant number of the requirements and selection criteria” but that the district can still join the program if it addresses the concerns.

Cobb released a statement saying that “making assessment better is complicated and hard work” and that the district would continue trying.

The waivers can be used through the 2023-24 school year, but Georgia education officials said the state may not need that much time. After evaluating the two competing platforms — or three if Cobb also wins federal approval — the Georgia Department of Education will pick one to implement statewide. Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods said the state “must continue to rethink” testing, noting that state law requires more tests than federal law.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Georgia’s inclusion in the program Wednesday, along with North Carolina. Louisiana and New Hampshire were already approved.

“I’m pleased that Georgia and North Carolina are rethinking how to assess student achievement in ways that are more relevant and connected to the classroom,” DeVos said in a prepared statement.

John Barge, the superintendent in McIntosh County, joined the Putnam consortium and said the new tests produce far more detailed information for teachers than the Milestones do. In the past, when teachers were trying to catch kids up after reviewing only the Milestones scores, they found that picking the correct curriculum was “kind of a crapshoot,” said Barge, the former state school superintendent. If the Putnam test gets approved for statewide use, he said, “you’re going to have a clearer picture of what kids know.”

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