Efforts falter to develop new Georgia K-12 state tests

File photo (Alex Brandon, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ATLANTA – An effort to transform how Georgia tests its K-12 public school students is faltering and may not achieve its goals.

One of two groups involved in the effort told the state Board of Education on Wednesday that it has suspended work after a testing company pulled out. The other group is still moving ahead, but faces continuing questions about whether its test can be comparable to the existing state Milestones tests.

The two groups of school districts launched in 2019, aiming to create not just one big test that’s given at the end of the year, but a series of smaller tests given throughout the year. The tests combined would sum up student performance.

State Superintendent Richard Woods, a longtime skeptic of standardized testing, sees federal rules governing the pilot programs as one obstacle, saying the U.S. Department of Education’s Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority isn’t truly allowing for innovation.

“We want you to be flexible and creative, but we want you to use the same kind of test,” is how Woods summed up the federal position on Thursday, saying getting federal permission to replace current tests “is a very difficult, uphill climb.”

Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina are also exploring alternative approaches to traditional tests.

Georgia hopes year-round smaller tests could guide teachers and students on what state standards they have mastered and what areas need improvement. Now, districts get results after the school year is over, too late to make changes.

“The promise of a formative assessment agency is you get much more current feedback, so it can direct instruction,” said state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Marietta Republican who authored a 2018 state law authorizing the pilots.

Because almost all districts already give what are called formative assessments throughout the year to check student progress, turning formative assessments into the state test could sharply cut class time spent testing. It could also eliminate weeks of repetitive review that many districts conduct before state tests in the spring.

Those running the two programs say not only the federal government but the state shares blame for problems. Lawmakers didn’t allot any money this year to help fund efforts that could cost more than $10 million apiece, after previously giving each group $250,000. The state Department of Education had pledged to hire five staffers to help, but hired none after lawmakers didn’t fund the positions. The state says its existing testing staff have provided any support the pilots have requested.

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Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera, who leads the 18-district consortium that suspended operations, leveled a blunt assessment that surprised state Board of Education members.

“Can we stop wasting the time of children?” Rivera told board Wednesday. “Because there were 130-something-thousand tests given to kids, and if this thing is dead and no one had the courage to tell us, we don’t have to waste their time.”

Complicating the task is the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out a year of testing for both groups, leaving them behind schedule. The Marietta-led group hasn’t yet completed a full year of testing, and can’t do so this year, because the fall testing window has already passed.

The second group of 10 districts, led by Putnam County, has piloted all its tests, and will this month submit a report aimed at showing they are just as good as Milestones. In one vote of confidence, testing giant Pearson this year bought the company founded by a University of Georgia professor that developed what are called the Navvy tests.

Marianne Perie, who is overseeing technical evaluations on behalf of education consultancy WestEd, told the board that evaluators remain unsure if the Navvy tests can be truly comparable to Milestones. Navvy right now only requires students to take 75% of individual test modules in a subject, while federal rules require student to be tested on all state standards. That could mean students must be assigned zeroes for modules they don’t take.

“We’re not sure how this will scale up to a summative score,” Perie said.

Perie praised both pilot programs, but said becoming the state test would “put a huge burden on them.”

“These are both really good assessment systems, but they were both designed to be something really different that what they’re being squeezed into,” Perie said. “I worry that once they become a state assessment system, all the good work suddenly gets smothered by federal requirements.”