School achievement measures miss mark on student performance

August 9, 2019 8:00 am

Students taking part in Milestones testing in Atlanta in 2017. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Public Schools.

As Georgia school districts kicked off the new school year this month, educators, parents and stakeholders are rejoicing over the recently-released Milestones scores. A press release from the Georgia Department of Education announced the results with a celebratory tone: “Students record strongest-ever overall gains on Georgia Milestones assessments.” Test improvements are worth celebrating, but unfortunately the scores do not paint a complete picture for Georgia students.

First administered during the 2014-2015 school year, the Georgia Milestones are used to analyze student achievement. They are also included in the calculations for the College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI), Georgia’s rating system used to identify deficiencies in schools and determine any necessary supports. In fact, Milestones make up the lion’s share of the calculations, determining 82 percent of a middle school’s CCRPI score and 70 percent of a high school’s score. Students are tested in math, science and English/Language Arts and ranked in four categories: distinguished for high scorers, proficient for those who have demonstrated mastery of subject material, developing for those who are close to understanding material, and beginning for those who are not. 

This year, Georgia students performed better or as well as before on 25 of 26 Milestones, the best overall performance since their inception. One of the Milestones considered most critical is third-grade reading proficiency, where students saw strong gains. After the third grade, nearly every course a student takes requires proficient reading skills. Many claim this score can predict educational outcomes.

However, the usefulness of these tests as an evaluation tool is suspect. Family income level most clearly affects test results. An analysis by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute showed that CCRPI scores correlate with the percentage of students at a school living in poverty. A separate study by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution also found a strong relationship between Milestones performance and the number of students from low-income families. 

Poverty can create significant hurdles for students. The correlation GBPI found can obscure trends in education as well as student aptitude and teachers’ effectiveness. There are myriad reasons for this trend. Students from low-income families are less likely to be able to access extra educational resources, for example. Those who struggle to access adequate health care or cannot afford breakfast may have trouble focusing. School funding exacerbates these issues. In recent years, Georgia’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula, which determines funding for schools, has become skewed. Georgia accounts for differences in local property tax revenues when allocating state funds to education, but resources are not evenly distributed, and schools with low-income students are more likely to have bigger class sizes or outdated books. Poverty affects nearly every aspect of a student’s education.

Accountability in education is fundamental to helping students reach their full potential. However, Georgia lawmakers must recognize that the current system punishes schools that serve low-income families rather than accurately ascribing problem areas and developing solutions. 

Reforms to education aimed at people-powered prosperity can help correct the problem. Fully funding the QBE formula in 2018 — for the first time in 16 years — was a first step, but the formula remains outdated. There are links between school funding and test outcomes, and QBE must account for that. Moreover, by investing in “wraparound services,” such as mental health supports, health services and English-language assistance, Georgia’s school system can help alleviate the burden poverty can impose on students.

Georgia now allows family income to be a predictor of academic success. With a few changes to the education system, however, Georgia can help every child reach their full potential.

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Stephen Owens
Stephen Owens

Stephen Owens is senior policy analyst at GBPI, where he focuses on state polices and research that affect public K-12 education in Georgia. Prior to joining GBPI in 2018, Stephen was a research and data analyst at the Georgia Department of Education. Stephen graduated from the University of Georgia, where he holds a doctorate with a focus on education policy.