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Officials: Georgia Milestones reflect lower scores, higher bar

FORSYTH COUNTY — For the past year, state education officials have been preparing Georgians for lower standardized test scores in public schools. After an overhaul of the testing system, it appears preliminary results released Thursday support those predictions.

Less students throughout the state earned top marks on the Georgia Milestones Assessment System, which was administered for the first time in the 2014-15 school year, than on the previous assessment system that was in place for more than a decade.

“These results show a lower level of student proficiency than Georgians are used to seeing, but that does not mean Georgia students know less or that teachers are not doing a great job — it means they’ve been asked to clear a higher bar,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said.

“Our previous assessment, the CRCT, set some of the lowest expectations for student proficiency in the nation, and that cannot continue.”

More detailed tests results by district, school and student are expected to be released in October.

In the meantime, officials know that less than 40 percent of students in each grade statewide scored at or above proficient levels on any assessment, though passing percentages were in the 60s-70s.


Higher standards make for lower scores


The higher bar for student proficiency is aimed at better preparing students for college and careers and providing a more realistic picture of academic progress.

“For too long we’ve been telling students they were on track to be successful in college or ready for a career when they graduated high school, yet in many cases they were not,” said Dana Rickman, policy and research director for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and a member of the standard-setting review committee.

“This is a necessary step to improving education for kids in Georgia. It provides an honest assessment of where we are as a state and where we need to focus our attention to ensure all students are successful.”

When comparing Georgia’s performance standards on the CRCT to the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 2013 scores, Georgia had the lowest standards of any state in fourth and eighth grade reading and had the third lowest standards in fourth and eighth grade math.

“Historically, low expectations were received better because it shows higher passing rates,” said Melissa Fincher, deputy superintendent of assessment and accountability for the state.

While just 34 percent of fourth-graders in Georgia passed NAEP reading assessments in 2013, 93 percent passed CRCT reading assessments, according to information from the state.


Not apples to apples


Considering CRCT and Milestones are different tests with different levels of expectations to define achievement, the two assessments cannot be directly compared, Fincher said.

The state nixed CRCT/EOCT on the grounds that Milestones, which is aligned with national Common Core standards, is a single comprehensive assessment system instead of a series of individual tests.

Now, students in third through eighth grades take end-of-grade tests in English language arts, math, science and social studies.

High school students take end-of-course tests in English (ninth-grade literature and composition and American literature and composition), math (coordinate algebra and analytic geometry), science (physical science and biology) and social studies (U.S. history and economics/business/free enterprise).

While the CRCT scored students on three levels — does not meet, meets or exceeds expectations — Milestones breaks test-takers into four groups — beginning, developing, proficient and distinguished learners. Developing learners and above are considered passing scores.

The addition of the fourth proficiency level, developing, was aimed to pinpoint those students who are proficient enough in the subject content to move on to the next level but who need additional academic support to ensure success at that next level to be on track for college and career readiness.


What the scores mean


Promotion and retention was waived last year because officials knew results would be delayed — intentionally so teachers could be included in the standard-setting process — and that the first “hold harmless” administration would be used as a baseline.

Students in third, fifth and eighth grades must demonstrate they can read and comprehend grade-level material.

Performance on the reading component of the English/language arts test will determine whether the student is reading below or on/above grade level. Students will also receive Lexile scores based on their reading skill.

Students in fifth and eighth grades must also demonstrate grade-level skills in math to move up a grade.

Between 66 and 76 percent of students across all grade levels passed their respective ELA assessment; 68-79 percent passed math; 62-75 percent passed science; and 70-75 passed social studies.

“Over 300 educators from across the state participated in the standard-setting process, including faculty from both the university and technical college systems,” Fincher said. “Teachers made a resounding recommendation to raise our state’s expectations for student learning.”

Milestones includes open-ended questions to better gauge students’ content mastery and, with some exceptions for special education students with specific testing accommodations, will be administered entirely online by the fifth year.

According to Fincher, the number of assessments administered decreased from 42 to 32 across all grades from the last year of CRCT to this first year of Milestones.