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Standardized Tests Show Learning Loss for Georgia Students

Results of the state’s Milestones tests showed low participation and a rise in failing students compared to the 2018-19 school year, fairing worst in high school, where more students had online classes.

Standardized Test
(TNS) — After more than a year of schooling in crisis, Georgia education officials released the results of state standardized tests that confirm what many feared: students lost a lot of ground during the pandemic.

How much ground remains open to debate, even with these new scores.

Hundreds of thousands of students declined to enter their schools to take the Milestones tests, which are given on computers but were not offered online. The low participation rate has fueled doubts about the accuracy of the aggregate scores that are used to calculate the average performance numbers for schools, school districts and the state overall.

There were no consequences for skipping the tests. State officials had already announced that the resulting scores would be stripped of their influence over high school course grades, decisions about the promotion or retention of younger students and the evaluations of teachers and school principals

The tests are first given in third grade, where about a fifth of the students opted out. Participation rates dropped from there, with about 40 percent of eighth-graders skipping the tests. High school turnout was lower still.

Even so, the scores in Georgia follow the general arc of those in other states, such as Louisiana and Tennessee, that have already released results: down.

Georgia’s overall scores fell from the 2018-19 school year, the last time the tests were given. The percentage of failing students rose by 2 to 9 points, varying by grade level and subject.

The largest declines were in high school, where more students likely attended online.

Among the key measures of future success that many observers look for is the performance in reading and writing in third grade.

In metro Atlanta, Clayton County saw the largest increase in the proportion of students — 23 percentage points — who performed in the lowest quartile for English Language Arts, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. These “beginning learners” failed to demonstrate proficiency in the knowledge and skills for the subject and will need “substantial” help preparing for the next grade, according to the state’s rating system.

Cobb and DeKalb counties saw double-digit increases in their third grade English Language Arts failure rates while Atlanta and Gwinnett County kept the increase in their failure rate at under 10 points, the AJC found. Fulton County’s rate was little changed from 2019.

However, the scores do not represent overall enrollment in several of those districts, with fewer than half of third-grade students taking their English test in Atlanta and fewer than a third doing so in Clayton.

Just over half the students took the test in DeKalb, fewer than two-thirds in Fulton and less than three out of four in Gwinnett. Cobb had the highest participation rate at 86 percent.

Ordinarily, the federal government wants participation rates of at least 95 percent but the requirement was not enforced for these tests due to the pandemic.

The main problem with using the scores to calculate averages: it is unclear who skipped the tests, whether the low-performing students who typically suppress the scores or the high performers who buoy them.

“Regardless of who got tested, you’re going to see lousy scores,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the emeritus president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational research and advocacy organization. “Scores are going to be down and if they’re like everyplace else that I’ve seen and heard about there’s going to be very little if any growth.” In an interview last week, he predicted the Georgia scores would officially document the “learning catastrophe” depicted anecdotally over the many months of the pandemic. “It’s a bleak picture. There’re no two ways about it.”

In a statement accompanying the release of the scores Monday, the Georgia Department of Education warned about using the new scores for comparisons.

“While the scores show slight decreases compared to 2018-2019 — the last year Georgia Milestones tests were administered — it is essential that these results be interpreted in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated learning disruptions, along with differences in participation,” the agency said.

The Georgia Association of Educators said in a news release that the new scores suggest that the public should not expect test scores to accurately measure the performance of teachers. The effect of the pandemic “shows the impact external factors often have on children’s performance on standardized tests,” the group’s president, Lisa Morgan, said in the statement.

The federal government requires that states test students in math and English in grades three through eight and once in high school. They also must be tested once in science in elementary, middle and high school. Georgia adds two social studies tests: Georgia history in middle school and U.S. history in high school. The U.S. Department of Education waived the testing requirement in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 first shuttered schools. It required resumption of test administration last school year but waived the use of the tests for grading schools and educators.

Schools in Georgia have received billions of dollars in federal relief money, and the test scores may well factor into decisions about how those dollars are spent.

Allison Timberlake, who oversees testing for the Georgia Department of Education, is confident in the results as a guide for state-level spending in broad categories such as literacy and numeracy. But she said local decisions should be led by more information, such as the scores from low-stakes “formative” tests that many districts use throughout the school year.

“When it gets to school and district-level data we just have to be careful,” said Timberlake, the deputy superintendent over assessment and accountability.

Timberlake saw few patterns in the data except for one detected by prior research at the national level: math slipped further than English. Last year, national scores from the MAP Growth assessments, a formative test used by more than 300 Georgia schools, showed reading more or less intact but math suffering, with the worst performance at the elementary school level.

Besides the questions about the statistical accuracy of the aggregate scores, their utility for each child is also in question. Do the scores accurately gauge what they learned — or didn’t learn — or are they more a reflection of test-taking amid the duress of a pandemic, or of the apathy that might come when everyone knows the scores don’t really matter?

“There’re so many different confounding factors that we won’t be able to tease apart,” said Dana Rickman, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy group. “What is this really measuring?”

Parents should regard the results with skepticism, but should not completely dismiss them, advised Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, which consults with states, including Georgia, on the design and use of tests.

If the scores are worrisome or contradict expectations, talk with teachers after the first weeks of school. They get to know students quickly and will know within a month — sooner for younger kids — which of them have crucial gaps in knowledge, he advised.

“The worst thing people can do is try to remediate kids on everything they didn’t learn before. ... Because all the stuff you learn in certain grades you don’t need the next year. You learn it because people think it’s important to at least know once,” he said. “If you try to remediate everything that kids didn’t learn the year before, then you’re lucky to start the regular school year by January.”

©2021 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.