A graduate of Atlanta Public schools, Clara Totenberg Green is now a middle school teacher in the district. Today, she raises compelling questions about the Georgia Milestones and whether the new state exams serve to help teachers improve their instruction. District- and school-level results on the Milestones were released this week.
The Milestones results were delayed this year because of standard setting, according to the state Department of Education, and will be back to schools and teachers in two weeks in 2016.
However, her points on the information provided to teachers from the tests are excellent, and the state Department of Education should take heed.
(And to the question some of you will ask: Green's own APS students were among the top scorers in the district on the Milestones.)
By Clara Totenberg Green
Imagine you're a football coach, working the entire season to prepare your team for the championship. You spend countless hours on the field, coaching your players and improving their skills for the final game. But when the time finally comes, you're not allowed to attend the game. You are only told whether your team won or lost, and if their defense or offensive was weak or strong. You're not given any information on how your players struggled or where they needed work. All you're told is to get back to practice and coach better next year.
Illogical, right? And yet, this is exactly what we are asking teachers to do.
On Monday, the Georgia Milestones Assessment System released test scores from last school year. The Milestones exam helps determine how schools are funded and is the most important high-stakes test Georgia students take. The coming cycle of tests will be used to determine students' advancement to the next grade, as well as 50 percent of each teacher's evaluation.
The results were released seven months after the students took the test, and more than four months into the current school year. In other words, the state of Georgia took seven months to grade the test that I was given eight months to prepare students for. According to the Department of Education, this year’s results will be distributed two weeks after the test. But while the results may come faster, their limited data provides no insight into my students’ learning. Test results in May give teachers mere weeks to address student needs before summer break.
In my Social Studies class last year, my students and I had wondrous moments when we explored, deliberated, and reflected on dynamic historical topics. But the test always loomed in the background, an eventuality that we had to face. I planned my lessons knowing there was very little time I could spend on each topic, forced to rush on to new material that had to be covered by test time. The pressure of the test invaded almost every moment of my instruction.
But, when the day finally arrived, I wasn't allowed to see the test. To this day, I don’t know what content they were tested on or how the questions were written. The very person charged with teaching students the content was kept completely in the dark.
I spent the entire year preparing my students for a test I never saw, a test that never helped me advance my teaching or my students’ education. And now the results, which arrive only four months before the next round of testing begins, provide no comprehensive data that can be used to improve instruction. We are testing for the sake of testing, providing no opportunities for constructive intervention or instruction. Now I’m back in the same place I was last year – teaching complex topics on a superficial level, cutting off class debates because of limited time, knowingly not providing my students with all the services they need – all because of a test that awaits.
This week’s data from the Georgia Milestones is vague and inadequate, providing little insight into my students’ strengthens and weakness. The results categorize students into one of four “achievement levels” for each subject. Social Studies is grouped under broad themes - geography, government/civics, economics, and history. The Milestones results list students’ “domain mastery” of these themes. But within history alone, sixth grade teachers teach 20 standardized subject areas. Just one of these standard areas covers the Russian Revolution, the Treaty of Versailles, worldwide depression, and the rise of Nazism. There are 19 other detailed and lengthy subject areas just in the history section. That means that when I’m told how a student fared on history, I’m actually being told very little.
If the Georgia Milestones are actually about improving instruction, I need more information. I need answers to questions such as: Did students do poorly on written geography questions but well on maps? Did students know the history of the Holocaust but miss questions on the Russian Revolution? Did students struggle with questions that asked them to apply their knowledge to hypothetical situations?
In an August op-ed, State School Superintendent Richard Woods said the Georgia Milestones would paint “a clear and accurate picture of where our students are and how to get them where they need to be – an assessment system that provides purpose instead of just percentiles and data points.” But that didn't happen. By refusing to let me see the test, and then belatedly giving me scant data in late November on how my students performed, I have no means of using the information to guide my instruction. The Georgia Milestones results are grades, not tools for instruction and educational transformation.
The state of Georgia considers this test our championship game, and I want to be the best coach I can. But even if I accept the premise that testing is a key to educational success, I'm not given the tools to prepare students as best as possible. If this test is actually about improving education, why does it feel like every child ends up losing?