By Guest Columnist DANA RICKMAN, director of policy and research for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education

On July 22 there is a primary run-off election in Georgia. One of the statewide offices voters can cast a ballot for in both the Republican and Democrat run-off is state school superintendent. Whoever is elected to this important post will be responsible for guiding the continued implementation of a broad education reform agenda.

Part of that holistic agenda involves the implementation of a new student assessment system.

Dana Rickman
Dana Rickman

This past June, the Georgia Department of Education announced they were awarding a $107.8 million, five year contract for the development and implementation of a new student assessment system. That system, the Georgia Milestones Assessment system (Georgia Milestones) will go into effect during this coming 2014-2015 academic school year and will be more rigorous than the old end of grade and end of course tests they are replacing. What’s behind these changes and why are they so important to our students and our schools?

The change in assessments is part of a broader education reform plan being implemented in Georgia that includes changes in standards, teacher evaluation systems, school and school accountability measures and a host of other instructional practices to keep pace with the new 21st century classrooms. The new classrooms take advantage of technology, focus on STEM, and on-line learning. This plan fits together like a puzzle. The outside edges always help define the size and shape of the picture being put together. The defining edges of what is happening in Georgia can be described by four questions:

  1. What do we teach?
  2. How do we know students are learning?
  3. Are teachers effectively delivering the instruction?
  4. Who makes sure all that happens?

A previous column here addressed the first question: What do we teach? That column examined the increased rigor of our state standards and what is being taught in Georgia classrooms. This article examines the second question in detail: How do we know students are learning?

Once it is established what students should learn, the next question is: Are they actually learning it? Increased rigor in the classroom is of no benefit if the students are not learning the material. Assessments of student learning inform teachers, parents and others if students are mastering the material. With the new, more rigorous standards in place, Georgia is developing the Georgia Milestones to measure student achievement. Previously, the state had relied on a compilation of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) for grades 3 through 8 and End of Course Tests (EOCT) for grades 9-12, in addition to other tests such as the writing tests.

The Georgia Milestones will require more from students than the CRCT and EOCT in order to help better prepare them for the demands of college and/or a career. The test themselves will be more rigorous and have higher cut scores.The cut score is the number of items that must be correctly answered to reach the meets and exceeds benchmark.

In addition to the traditional end of year tests, teachers are being trained on administering formative assessments throughout the school year. These types of low-stakes assessments allow teachers to gather feedback about how well their students are learning the materials and can inform instruction. This way, teachers do not have to wait until the end of the year to see if their students learned the material.

The Education Reform Puzzle (click to enlarge)
The Education Reform Puzzle (click to enlarge)

It is important to note that when the new assessments are introduced this coming school year, the percentage of students meeting and exceeding academic standards are predicted to be lower than previous year’s scores. This is not an indication that our students are learning less or know less than they did a year ago. The goal line has been moved. Expectations have been raised.

Properly designed, implemented and utilized, assessments play an important role in ensuring our students are on track to graduate high school ready for the challenges of college, a career, or the military. Why should we care? For Georgia to continue on its economic development pathway, graduating students must be able to compete with others from across the country and the world. These reforms should help monitor and ensure that progress.

This is the second in a series of entries that will detail the four defining edges of Georgia’s education reform puzzle. Stay tuned for detailed discussions on the delivery of instruction, and who makes it all happen. This issue, as well as other key education issues, is addressed in the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education’s Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2014 report.

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