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Georgia Milestones' first checkpoint: Getting past education controversy

The rules have changed for evaluating students and their teachers

Posted: July 26, 2014 - 7:04pm

ATLANTA | Students and teachers heading back to school after the summer break can expect a new type of test designed to gauge how each is doing, called Georgia Milestones.

The new testing series replaces the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests, or CRCT, and the end-of-course tests required of high school students. It is intended to link what students need to know to succeed once they pass to the next grade level, while giving teachers and parents an ongoing signal of how well a student is doing and what areas of weakness need addressing.

It is already ripe for criticism on two fronts. It is linked to the controversial Common Core education standards, and it will be the basis for half of teachers’ professional evaluations.

Complicating matters, it is being implemented by State Superintendent of Schools John Barge, whose term in office ends in January after placing third in the Republican primary for governor, and by his chief assistant, Mike Buck, who lost the GOP primary to succeed Barge to Richard Woods, an avowed opponent of Common Core and Georgia Milestones.

Teacher groups worried about unfair assessments are keeping a close eye on the rollout, said Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

“With yet another testing instrument to be used as a measure of a child’s learning and a teacher’s effectiveness, everyone in the process of education will be impacted,” he said. “The debate over the relationship between student-testing and teacher-effectiveness instruments is increasing and will not easily be rectified.”

Georgia is launching the new tests as part of its three-year implementation of Common Core, a set of minimum academic standards adopted by most states — and opposed by social conservatives concerned about diluting regional views of family values with texts drafted by liberals from other regions. The state has the added incentive of a federal grant that required it in the Race to the Top program.

“The whip hand in all of this is held by the feds because they have given Georgia about $450 million,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher group.

One of the biggest selling features of Georgia Milestones could be termed “truth in assessments.” As a result, most observers expect that the public will be stunned by a sharp drop in achievement scores.

Consider the most recent results from the CRCT in which 93 percent of fourth-graders met or exceeded reading requirements while the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NEAP said only 34 percent met or exceeded them. It was the same story with math scores, eighth-grade science and reading scores, whether compared to NEAP, the SAT or ACT.

“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,” Barge said last month.

A departure from the “bubble test,” as the CRCT was known for its computerized answer form, Georgia Milestones will not rely solely on multiple-choice answers. Students will also have to show their math figuring, submit essays and solve open-ended questions.

The scores will count for 20 percent of a student’s course grade and be required for promotion to the next grade level.

All math, English, social studies and science courses will be tested. Students taking electives must take exams devised by their local school district.

Teachers’ jobs also depend partly on these tests, in addition to observations by principals and review of lesson plans.

“I think that’s what has a lot of folks concerned, certainly within my organization because we are going to be using these tests in ways that they were not designed for,” PAGE’s Callahan said.

So how well will it work?

District officials say they’re ready, like Clarke County Superintendent Philip Lanoue.

“While this new system is a substantive change for many teachers in the state of Georgia, I believe that our district is far ahead in how we assess our performance — given our work over the last three years in revamping our district evaluation system,” he said. “In my opinion, the expectations we hold for our performance far exceed those minimally required in the new system.”

Dana Rickman, policy director for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, supports Common Core and the concept of the Georgia Milestones, but she isn’t sure it will all come together in time, especially since the contract for the testing company was signed in May.

“This seems to be a very quick turnaround time to go statewide with a brand-new test,” she said.

She likes that students will be challenged to use reasoning, not just memorization, and that teachers should get feedback on how pupils are doing in time to address deficiencies.

“It should not come as a surprise at the end of the year how they are doing,” she said.

Jerry Eads, a professor of education at Georgia Gwinnett College, has confidence in the testing company, McGraw-Hill, and its long experience conducting tests in other states over the years. He concludes the state Department of Education has done a good job coordinating what students need to know to for their next grade level and to compete with cohorts from other states, thanks to Common Core.

“The Common Core work has apparently, at least in language arts, been of enormous help to the DOE in providing sensible scope and sequence within and across grades,” he said. “The skills necessary to develop such material, in my experience, has typically been far beyond the resources usually utilized by state departments of education in developing so-called ‘standards.’ ”

However, he opposes the aspect of Milestones that sets a minimum passing score, which he says fails to challenge bright students while penalizing those in struggling schools.

“To expect that a single, ‘passing score’ for a student with an IQ of 150 means the same thing as that same score for a student with an IQ of 80 is patently silly and totally worthless to an educator,” he said. “This is why the research is so clear that minimum-competency testing limits education for the bright students, and makes an impossible job for many educators in inner-city or poor, rural schools.”

A more pessimistic skeptic is Nancy Jester, a former school board member in DeKalb County, which was one of the Race for the Top guinea pigs. In her unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for state superintendent, she campaigned against the test and Common Core as needlessly complicated and costly.

Only 20 of DeKalb’s 6,500 teachers were found to be ineffective when the evaluation system was tried there, she notes.

“This contrasts with the abysmal academic achievement in the district as measured by the CRCT and graduation rates,” she said. “You cannot simultaneously understand the student-performance metrics and believe that there are only about 20 ‘ineffective’ teachers.”

Though there is wide divergence on philosophy, everyone seems to agree that things will be different.

Perhaps PAGE’s Callahan summed it up,

“We can’t say the jury is out because the trial hasn’t even begun yet,” he said.

 
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