Smaller tests could replace state’s big Milestones exams

Many Georgia teachers despise them, as do many parents and their children, but state standardized tests have long been essential to measure student progress and hold schools accountable.

An experiment in Putnam County, along with a proposed state law, could change that.

The tiny, 2,900-student school district has developed a series of smaller tests given throughout the school year that could replace the massive, year-end Georgia Milestones.

“We need real-time information to help our teachers,” said Putnam County School District Superintendent Eric Arena. His home-grown tests give teachers peeks throughout the year at whether students are on track to master the state’s “standards,” or learning goals. Scores for the the Milestones do not come back to schools until after a student is finished with a course or grade.

“And by that time,” Arena said, “the kids have already moved on.”

Arena hopes the state will accept the scores on his smaller tests in place of the Milestones results.

Putnam and other Georgia school districts, including some in metro Atlanta, are backing a legislative proposal that could make it happen statewide.

High-stakes testing under the No Child Left Behind Act brought new accountability to schools but also changed the job of teaching, in some cases in a regrettable way. Pressure on teachers and administrators to raise test scores motivated the cheating that resulted in criminal convictions in Atlanta Public Schools. That pressure was eased under the bi-partisan Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015. It still requires tests, but gives states more discretion over how to use them and allows for experimentation with different types.

Georgia has paid a private company about $100 million since 2015 to develop and administer the Milestones. The tests are central to the state’s educational accountability system, but teachers complain they do not help them teach and take time away from learning.

A broader criticism is that the tests distort what happens in the classroom when teachers, whose careers can be influenced by the results, feel compelled to “teach to the test.” Also, many worry about excessive time spent on testing.

Advocates of testing, including Gov. Nathan Deal, say test results are a clear measure of performance to hold schools accountable. Yet Deal has prodded the Georgia Department of Education to pursue alternatives to the Milestones, citing the work in Putnam County.

Many of Georgia’s 180 school districts use their own progress tests in addition to the state tests, but Putnam and three other small school districts with which it has joined forces may soon be able to use theirs instead of the Milestones. Other districts could join in if Senate Bill 362 becomes state law and the U.S. Department of Education approves it.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, introduced that bill in late January with the backing of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. It proposes a pilot program for three to five years, allowing up to 10 “alternate assessment and accountability” testing options in Georgia.

Cagle said teaching shouldn’t be built around “an outdated standardized testing model.”

School staff from Putnam helped design the pilot program, along with staff from the city schools in Marietta and Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

“We anticipate applying,” said Jonathan Patterson, the associate superintendent over curriculum in Gwinnett.

His district, the largest in the state with 179,000 students, also has its own tests. And, he said, the Milestones — which are given in English and math in third grade through high school, plus science and social studies in fifth and eighth grades and in high school — are redundant.

Putnam, working in a consortium with Floyd, Glascock and Jasper counties, is consulting with education expert Laine Bradshaw to refine its tests. She and a team of teachers have been rewriting questions. And the district started a pilot program this fall to investigate the validity of the results in its assessments for math and reading for third through eighth grade.

Bradshaw, an associate professor at the University of Georgia said each of the smaller tests cover one or a few of the standards rather than all of them in one sitting, like the Milestones.

If these local quizzes are allowed to supplant the Milestones, it would mean more questions cumulatively over the year, but fewer at each sitting, Bradshaw said.

It would mean less big-test stress for students and more useful information for teachers.

The legislation by Tippins, chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, requires state education officials to determine whether local tests that emerge from this experiment are comparable to the Milestones and, if they are, to identify strategies to make them available statewide.

“Instead of just having a Milestones that gives us a post mortem at the end of the year, this will be less high-stakes and more informative,” Tippins said. He said periodic quizzes would allow teachers to get their students “back on track before they flounder.”

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