Your guide to the Georgia Milestones, the state's new standardized tests

For the first time in 15 years, Georgia is using new standardized exams to measure how well public school students learn the state's curriculum.

They are considered tougher tests, increasingly more students will take them on a computer, and they are coming to a school near you -- starting this week.

Say goodbye to the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and hello to the Georgia Milestones Assessment System.

The Georgia Department of Education implemented the CRCT in spring 2000. To comply with the state's amended A-Plus Education Reform Act, the department phased in the CRCT until all students in grades 1-8 were tested in the subject areas of English language arts and math, and all students in grades 3-8 also were tested in science and social studies.

The Georgia Milestones also replace the state's standardized tests for public high school students. The Georgia High School Graduation Tests were administered to students who entered ninth grade anytime from July 1, 1991, to June 30, 2011. End of Course Tests replaced the GHSGT when officials determined it was fairer to measure how well high school students learned the content when each course concluded instead of waiting until 11th grade.

In 2012, the department started implementing the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, based on the Common Core State Standards Initiative coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The new standards are designed to improve the following areas:

Preparation -- making students ready for college and careers.

Competition -- ensuring students are globally competitive.

Equity -- expectations are consistent for all students.

Clarity -- standards are focused and coherent.

Collaboration -- creating a foundation to work across states and districts.

All of which made Georgia's curriculum more rigorous. Now, the department has an assessment system developed to measure that rigor -- and the state has reached another milestone in its pursuit of better academic performance for schools and students.

Assessing the assessment

So are the Georgia Milestones an improvement? It's too early to tell, local education leaders said. But they are optimistic.

"Seeing the sample items, it is going to raise the standard for student assessment in the state," said Muscogee County School District Superintendent David Lewis.

Chattahoochee County Education Center principal Tabitha Walton, on behalf of Superintendent David McCurry, said the new tests also should raise the standard for parent involvement.

"It's going to take everybody working together," said Walton, who this summer will become ChattCo's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "Parents need to come in the classroom and see the difference between the way they were taught. It's all about problem solving, which is a very real need in our society. As much as we raise the bar for students, they will reach that bar if we give them what they need."

Jeff Branham, chief information officer and human resources director for the Harris County School District, said on behalf of Superintendent Jimmy Martin, "Proponents believe it will be a more accurate measure of student achievement in Georgia. Many believe that it will be more rigorous and require a higher depth of knowledge in the subject matter."

More rigorous

The Georgia Milestones are considered more rigorous than the state's previous standardized exams because they include questions that require what are called "constructed responses."

"Constructed-response questions are open-ended, short-answer questions that measure application-level cognitive skills as well as content knowledge," said Ronie Collins, Muscogee County School District's chief academic officer. " They use real-world examples, including time lines, maps, graphs, charts and short reading. They are graded against a specific criterion and use a scoring rubric."

In other words, constructed-response questions "require students to provide the correct answer rather than select an answer as we have traditionally done," said Patrick Knopf, Muscogee County School District's director of research, accountability and assessment.

For example, Knopf said, "Students may have to explain how they arrive at the answer or even explain how an answer that's been provided is wrong."

The Georgia Milestones have between 44 and 55 questions on each subject test, Knopf said, which is about the same as the CRCT. The difference is that at least three of those questions will be constructed-response items in math and English language arts, and they will be added to the science and social studies tests next year, he said.

"It's a big jump," Knopf said. "It's going to require a transition statewide."

Lewis praised the additional rigor but emphasized that the tests amount to "one indicator. They are not the be-all and end-all. There continues to be multiple metrics to assess student performance."

And multiple ways to administer those assessments.

Online testing

The Georgia Department of Education has mandated that, by the 2017-18 school year, all of its standardized tests must be taken online, Knopf said, except for special-education students whose Individualized Education Plan requires a different accommodation. This year, he said, the benchmark for school districts is to have 30 percent of their students take the tests online, 50 percent next year and 80 percent in 2016-17. Scratch paper still will be allowed, Knopf said.

Muscogee County will meet the 30-percent level this year by testing all students in grades 5 and 8 online. The administration chose them, Knopf said, because they are the oldest students in their schools.

The students testing online in Harris County will be two fourth-grade classes at each elementary school, two fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Creekside and various teams at Harris County Carver Middle School, Branham said.

In Chattahoochee County, the online test-takers will be in fifth grade and seventh grade for all subjects as well as students in ninth-grade physical science and 12th-grade economics, Walton said.

Reprieve for grades 3, 5, 8

The Georgia Department of Education says it needs more time than usual to return the results of the Georgia Milestones because its vendors must norm the new exams and set expectations. Because the results aren't expected to be returned to the districts and schools until the fall, the department waived the requirement this year for students in grades 3, 5 and 8 to pass the standardized tests in English language arts and math. So the results on these tests this year won't determine whether those students are promoted to the next grade.

Pretest tips

Practices tests are available online, but educators say a better way to prepare for the Georgia Milestones is to pay attention in class each day.

"The schools have been preparing all along by teaching the grade-level standards," Collins said.

Experts, however, did offer a few tips for students to maximize their performance.

Before the tests, Lewis said, students should "eat nutritious meals, particularly breakfasts, and go in and be as relaxed as possible."

Branham also noted a good night's sleep is important. And he suggested, "Parents should encourage their children to simply do their best."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter

Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer