by Georgia Charter Schools Association
By D. Aileen Dodd
Georgia public schools are bracing for the impact of a new series of standardized tests that will be used as a measuring stick for student achievement. The Georgia Milestones Assessment System rolls into schools this spring, and the new exams are causing great uncertainty among those who will face them for the first time.
Educators are preparing for questions about the high-stakes tests, which few have seen. Students are being asked to brave the winds of higher expectations. Some kids fear they will be blown over by low test scores if they fall short of State goals. Critics of high-stakes testing decry the exams as inaccurate measures of student learning that can stifle the education of kids.
Nevertheless, for Georgia charter schools, which by State mandate must outperform the local districts from which they draw students, the pressure is on to push kids over the Milestones learning curve. Milestones scores will be used with other data to determine the effectiveness of charter schools and whether they meet State accountability goals. Hiccups in student achievement over time impact a charter’s contract renewal.
At Ivy Preparatory Academy, administrators are making a grand gesture to help smooth the transition and relieve test anxiety for parents and students concerned about the Georgia Milestones. School administrators have offered to make home visits to the living rooms of parents who want more information about the changes in the tests. The outreach is the school’s way of staying connected with parents and encouraging them to work with their children at home to prepare for success on the Milestones.
“We want to reach parents where they are in their own community,” said Joy Treadwell, principal of Ivy Prep Gwinnett. “We know parents are busy. Sometimes, they can’t make it to school. That is why we have launched a living room initiative. We want everyone to gain knowledge about the test.”
The Milestones, which test students in grades 3-8, are aligned with the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards curriculum. The tests measure how well students are mastering lessons in language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. The assessments replace the outgoing Georgia Criterion Referenced-Competency Tests, the End of Course Tests, and the state Writing Assessment.
Students who met and exceeded standards on the outgoing State exams will find some key elements of the former tests continued on the Milestones. The new exam will also feature some challenges designed to push students to use critical thinking rather than memorization to answer questions. For example, students will be asked open-ended questions in math that will have them explaining the method they used and how they arrived at their answers. The Milestones will also have open-ended essay questions in language arts and a writing section that follows reading passages.
At Ivy Preparatory Academy at Kirkwood in DeKalb County, students are already seeing more open-ended questions on homework and quizzes to help them become familiar with the format of the new state exams.
Teachers have invited parents to attend a monthly lecture series called “Parent University” where they can ask questions and learn more about the Milestones.
“The teacher talks to parents about the types of questions their child will see; the content and structure of the test; and how they can support their student in the individual content areas of the Milestones,” said Kendra Shipmon, principal of Ivy Prep Kirkwood’s School for Girls.
Getting parents to partner with the school on the Milestones Assessments is a strategy Ivy Prep Kirkwood is using to help take the fear out of the exam for students. “Any level of uncertainty about an exam makes students nervous,” Shipmon said. “We are working with them a lot on test-taking skills.”
Georgia Department of Education officials are also working to alleviate anxiety over the Milestones through outreach. Presentations on the new exam can be found on state DOE’s website. State education officials said that the change in state exams was necessary to give parents a more realistic picture of their child’s academic performance and to make Georgia students more prepared for college and careers after graduation.
Each content area of the Milestones will include norm-referenced questions that will allow achievement data for Georgia kids to be compared against their peers in other states. A standardized test already tracking national data on student performance, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), routinely reports that achievement scores for Georgia’s kids are significantly lower in some areas when national standards were used to evaluate them. For example, in 2013, only 34 percent of fourth graders were at or above proficiency in reading on the NAEP. Georgia’s CRCT, a state assessment, found that 93 percent of fourth graders met or exceeded standards in reading,State records show.
“We need to know that students are being prepared, not at a minimum-competency level, but with rigorous, relevant education to enter college the workforce or the military at a level that makes them competitive with students from other states,” John Barge, State Schools Superintendent said in a statement.
Barge added that the Milestones Assessments may cause a temporary dip in student test scores, but the change was necessary and represents an opportunity to recalibrate as a state and refocus on teaching and learning.
Officials with The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, however, disagree. They say standardized tests like the Georgia Milestones don’t go far enough to truly measure individual student learning through open-ended questions. What results, testing opponents say, is an exam that can be unfairly used to label schools and an education environment that teaches to the test and stresses out kids.
“The shift to a performance assessment that was promised by Common Core testing proponents did not come to fruition,” said Bob Schaeffer, national spokesman for FairTest. “These new tests are no better than the old exams. They are still largely multiple choice, and their results will continue to be misused in the same way by politicians in an attempt to make decisions about students, teachers and schools.”
What is your view on the Milestones exams? What is your charter school doing to help bolster scores despite the state’s predicted drop in student achievement on the Milestones? How are you making parents and students feel confident about the new exams?
D. Aileen Dodd is president of D. Aileen Dodd & Associates Media Services and media relations coordinator for Ivy Preparatory Academy
The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.