Test scores fell for Georgia students last year in the wake of the pandemic, amid questions about what the scores mean with few students taking the standardized tests in some districts.
State officials said they believe the scores would have been worse if the missing students had also taken the tests but also de-emphasized the weight they’re putting on the scores considering class disruptions stemming from COVID-19.
The Georgia Department of Education released the annual Milestones test results Monday. Students in grades 3-8 as well as high schoolers take the tests. Federal law requires most of the tests, and the U.S. Department of Education insisted that students take them, despite two requests by Georgia State Superintendent Richard Woods to cancel tests for the second year in a row.
“These are traditional tests that are designed to measure student performance in a traditional classroom environment,” Department of Education Chief of Staff Matt Jones said. “And we all know that this past year was anything but traditional. Students and teachers had to deal with an ever-changing environment.”
Normally, test results would be used to create report cards for schools and districts with letter grades. That won’t happen this year because Georgia and other states got waivers from the federal accountability requirement.
Proficiency levels generally fell more in math than in reading and more in younger grades.
“Given the magnitude of learning disruptions experienced this past school year, these decreases in performance really are not particularly large,” Deputy Superintendent Allison Timberlake told reporters in a briefing Friday.
Students were not required to take the tests, and participation varied by grade and school district. Many smaller districts reported 100% participation, as if last spring were normal, while in the handful of school districts that stayed virtual, few students took the test.
Participation also varied by age level, with nearly 80% of third graders taking the tests, but that fell to about half for high school end-of-course exams. The state Board of Education, after strong pressure from Woods, voted to make those tests count for nothing in a student’s grade in the four required courses. Historically, they counted for 20% of a class grade.
Dana Rickman, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education said scores “did not go down as much as we had feared,” but said the declines still had consequences.
“We have been making some really good progress over the past decade or so,” Rickman said. “And it feels like that progress has kind of been wiped out. And we’re sort of starting over.”
For example, the share of third graders reading on grade level fell from 72.9% in 2019 to 61.6% last spring. The share of eighth graders proficient in math fell from 34.9% to 31.8%.
Timberlake said that despite the large shares of students who didn’t take tests, the department judges that “the students who did test more or less are representative of the full population.” However, districts that had more than 95% of students take the test saw bigger score drops in some subjects than districts with smaller shares of test takers.
“So if we did have everyone test, my hypothesis would not be that the scores would be higher,” Timberlake said. “I think they would be a little bit lower.”
Timberlake said that besides the effects of disruptions themselves, the out-of-whack school year may have meant some districts were unable to cover all the standards on the test.
Some education advocates are concerned that so many students lack scores.
“In a way, you’re flying blind,” said Michael O’Sullivan, executive director of the Georgia Campaign for Achievement Now. “You assume there are gaps, but you don’t know where they are.”
State officials said districts will be able to rely on their internal tests to diagnose learning gaps, though.
It’s not clear that Georgia will be able to run its accountability system for schools or evaluation system for teachers and principals next year. That’s because those systems are supposed to give credit for growth in test scores. With low participation rates in 2021 in some districts and the last data before that from 2019, it could be difficult to compute reliable measures of student growth.