Georgia to seek federal waiver from year-end, state standardized-tests

The Georgia Board of Education on Thursday took control over the state’s application for relief from federal testing requirements just days ahead of Monday’s deadline to apply.

After a unanimous vote for a resolution that says school board chairman Scott Johnson must approve the state's submission, Johnson said in an interview that the intent is to let all 21 school districts that have been working on alternative tests participate in the federal "innovative assessment" pilot program.

If the U.S. Department of Education approves, the districts would be allowed to substitute their own homegrown tests for the state-standardized “Milestones” tests. Johnson said he thinks Georgia will develop a better testing system with the school board in charge.

The Georgia Department of Education had been leading the state’s application process. The agency’s elected leader, state Superintendent Richard Woods, sounded an upbeat note in a statement released after the school board’s vote. He said he was proud of the federal application his department assembled.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to secure the maximum flexibility allowable under federal law and craft an assessment system that informs teaching and learning and benefits every student in the state,” he said.

A common complaint about the Milestones is that the results aren’t released until after the school year, so they are of little use in the classroom where teachers must keep students on track. The tests indicate which students fell behind, but by then it’s too late.

The alternative tests being developed are more like quizzes than final exams — bite-size tests given throughout the school year. Teachers can use the more timely results to figure out what their students need.

Many districts already use such tests, but they are in addition to the Milestones, which leads to complaints about too much time and effort spent on testing.

The federal waiver would let the districts use the results from their periodic quizzes as a stand-in for the results from the year-end Milestones.

The Cobb County School District has developed its own test, as have two consortia of 10 districts each. One, led by Putnam County, has developed its test with a company called Navvy Education. The other, which includes metro Atlanta's Marietta City Schools and the Clayton County School District, is working with the NWEA, the organization behind the nationally available MAP test used by several dozen Georgia districts to monitor students throughout the school year.

Grant Rivera, the Marietta superintendent, was upbeat about the outcome of Thursday’s decision. Previously, state board members had talked about eliminating some school districts from the federal waiver application.

“I don’t want this to be about one plan pitted against the other,” Rivera said. “I want this to be about creating the best plan.”

Johnson, the board chairman, said that’s exactly what the board wants to do.

“Our hope is that we can get collaboration by all the participants that would create an instrument that is stronger than any of the three,” he said.

Johnson said each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Cobb’s is backed by a wealth of online resources that teachers can assign to students based on their test performance. The Putnam consortium’s is most tightly tied to the state’s educational standards, the base of knowledge that the state wants students to know by the end of each grade or high school course. The MAP Assessment Partnership, meanwhile, can draw on NWEA’s national student testing data to put Georgia students’ scores in a national context.

Georgia's pilot program grew out of Senate Bill 362, passed by the Georgia General Assembly this year. The law allows school districts to experiment with alternative tests, with approval from the state education department. It also requires the education department to eventually select from among the alternatives a system that the rest of Georgia's 180 school districts could use in place of the Milestones.

The idea behind SB 362 was to apply for the federal waiver program, which at the time was still being developed. The U.S. education department subsequently published its program details in September. Without a federal waiver, the districts could still develop and use their alternative tests, but they’d have to continue giving the Milestones, too.

Here are the school districts applying for the federal test waiver:

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