Here's when Marietta Schools says a new, better test may replace Georgia Milestones

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Jun. 18—Students from a group of 20 school districts, including Marietta City Schools, could be taking a test that will fully replace Georgia Milestones in those districts as soon as the 2022-23 school year.

If everything goes according to plan, all Georgia public school students could be taking the test by 2026.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Georgia Milestones are tests given to public school students in third through eighth grade at the end of the school year and are meant to be used as year-end review of how well the student has retained state curriculum and standards. But many education leaders have criticized Milestones and other summative assessments as focusing too little on each student's unique challenges and needs.

Summative assessments test students at the end of a course or year and are typically high-stakes, while formative assessments are given throughout the year and provide ongoing feedback to monitor student progress.

Marietta Schools and its 19 fellow districts, together called the GMAP Consortium, have modified an existing formative test to create a pilot test.

The GMAP test has been in development since a 2018 bill, authored by state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, was signed into law by former Gov. Nathan Deal.

Tippins said he authored the 2018 bill allowing creation of alternative tests because he'd been of the opinion "all along" that a single test at the end of the school year is "not the best way to have an assessment system."

But he said the nuts and bolts of the GMAP test predate the 2018 bill. Tippins said formative assessments that have been tweaked to become the GMAP test have been used in the Marietta School District for years. Former Marietta Superintendent Emily Lembeck, he said, "very much was of the same mindset I was in seeing the value of formative assessments."

"My preference has always been almost like a series of building blocks," Tippins said. "If you have formative assessments during the year on a more frequent basis, you can determine the areas that the student has mastered and the areas that they've not mastered."

That, he said, better guides instruction for each student and each class as a whole.

GMAP'S NEW TEST

Michael Huneke, director of assessment for Marietta City Schools, says the GMAP Consortium's new test will do just what Tippins hoped.

Huneke said the test will give students, teachers and parents more immediate and specific feedback on a student's progression in school and in which areas they still need support.

The pilot test would be given three times per year — in the fall, winter and spring.

And, Huneke said, "it's going to go off grade level."

"So if your student is in fifth grade and they're really performing at (a) third grade (level), it's going to tell us that," he said. "You've got to plug those holes, because the student will never learn the fifth grade standards unless they know the third and fourth grade first."

The new test, Huneke said, will also drill down to more specific standards that an individual student is struggling with. For example, where Georgia Milestones might show that a student is struggling with numbers and operations, the Marietta pilot test could specify that the student struggles with multiplication.

Huneke said in the spring of 2022, the GMAP Consortium's test will undergo a comparison study. Students will have to take both the new test and Georgia Milestones within two weeks of each other, and data collected from that field test will be turned over to state and federal education officials to show that it meets their standards and is comparable to Milestones.

If the new test passes muster with the state and feds, it's then up to the Georgia Board of Education to give its OK to begin phasing out the Milestones, Huneke said.

The hope, he said, is that all schools in the state could be taking the test in place of Milestones in the 2025-26 school year. Though the past two school years' interrupted by a pandemic have thrown a wrench into the process, Huneke said, "I think we're still on the timeline."

The Marietta group is not the only one to have come up with its own experimental test, under Tippins' 2018 legislation. Another group of districts, the Putnam County Consortium, is also piloting its assessment created after the bill's approval.

When all the field testing is complete, data is collected and federal approval is given, Huneke said, the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia school board will decide whether to stick with Milestones or implement either the GMAP Consortium's new test or the Putnam Consortium's test.

GEORGIA SCHOOL BOARD SUPPORT

Scott Johnson, a member of the Georgia Board of Education, said alternatives to Milestones already have much, if not all, of his board's support.

Johnson said Georgia isn't the only state working to develop formative rather than summative tests that meet federal standards. He said the federal government granted a handful of waivers to create experimental tests, and Georgia is one of the states "leading the way" with the GMAP and Putnam consortiums.

"We believe it's a much more applicable, functional, a richer way to teach students," he said. "The board certainly is of the opinion, and I am, that these are better ways to assess student learning."

The ultimate goal, Johnson said, is for the entire state to move to formative tests sooner rather than later. And he agreed with Huneke that the eyes of many other states are on Georgia, as a leader that will hopefully change the way the nation assesses K-12 student learning.

Huneke said a replacement for high school end-of-course tests in American literature, Algebra I, U.S. history and biology is also in the works. No specific timeline has been set on that test, he said.

The Marietta School District has also been named the GMAP Consortium's fiscal agent, tasked with spending half of the $500,000 recently allocated to the two consortiums by state lawmakers. This week, the Marietta Board of Education voted to approve the GMAP's spending wishlist, which includes content and staffing workshops, training and development of a consortium report.

The districts in Marietta's consortium, among others, include Barrow, Chattahoochee, Chattooga, Clayton, Dalton, Floyd, Jackson and Oglethorpe County Schools, as well as the Jasper County Charter System and the Georgia Cyber Academy.

The Cobb County School District's plan for an alternative test did not receive federal approval in 2019, and the district is not a part of either consortium's pilot program.

Nan Kiel, a spokesperson for the school district, said Cobb Schools will give the Milestones in the upcoming school year. But, she said, the district supports "more meaningful assessments," like the formative ones Cobb gives in addition to Milestones. Kiel said those kinds of assessments give "more useful information about students for both teachers and parents."

However, she added, "we believe the need to meet Federal comparability requirements make current efforts to replace the Milestones, unlikely."

Yet Johnson is optimistic.

"I am hopeful. Milestones is a Georgia-based test that was an improvement over the test it replaced, which was not specific to Georgia Standards of Excellence," he said. "We are hopeful the formative pilot project test will be a further improvement for testing, as well as a tool for teachers to help students learn in the process."

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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