• Commentary

This Year’s Georgia Milestones May Measure Learning Speed Bump

“If our country fails in its responsibility to educate every child, we’re likely to fail in many other areas,” President George W. Bush wrote in 2001 as he unveiled “No Child Left Behind,” his administration’s educational initiative. “But if we succeed in educating our youth, many other successes will follow throughout our country and in the lives of our citizens.”

At the foundation of President Bush’s policy was annual assessments to gauge the academic progress of every American child. It is from this that our system of annual testing – the Georgia Milestones– emerged, which provides an objective measure on how schools are performing, and which students are and aren’t being served.

The state of Georgia allocates billions of dollars to our education system, an annual investment that makes up 40% of the state budget and is the largest single spending priority. Federal and local entities add billions more. Ensuring that our investment in public education  delivers the promised results is essential. Accountability isn’t partisan, it’s essential fiscal stewardship.

In 2019, a year before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted daily education for over a million Georgia children, the Milestones assessments were sending up warning flares to educators and policymakers. In Atlanta, the results of the 2019 Milestones showed a nearly 60% achievement gap between white students, 80% of whom were mastering state standards, and Black students, where proficiency rates dropped to 25%. Across the state the same year, Milestones uncovered that 58% of third graders weren’t reading on grade level.

And that was before students’ education were disrupted thanks to the pandemic. School closures, canceled school days, inadequate virtual learning and more have all had a serious and negative impact on academic performance. 

This will be the first year since the 2018-19 school year that we will have meaningful data to adequately assess the breadth of these losses in student achievement. If the scores here are similar to those being seen throughout most of the country, the results will not be pretty. More than ever before, it’s critical that parents, policymakers and educators have an accurate read on the performance of our children and our education system.

Beyond accountability, the information provided is critical to parent empowerment. The Milestones Assessments’ Individual Student Report gives parents insight into their child’s performance across multiple subject areas. Countless families use these reports to see for themselves how their children are faring and, where necessary, make an informed decision as to whether to find alternative options for schooling that will better meet their needs.

As we continue working together toward a more open system of schooling in Georgia that gives parents a range of options in where and how their children will be educated, statewide objective assessments like Georgia Milestones will become all the more important. Course grades can be inflated or based on work that may not reflect the actual learning taking place. Graduation rates are often inflated to meet political pressure. National exams, such as the NAEP, only test a small group of children to inform system-wide decisions without providing parents with needed information about their own children.

This February, GeorgiaCAN commissioned a statewide poll asking the public how important it was for students to take an annual assessment to evaluate student learning. Some 56% said it was extremely or very important, while another 30% said it was somewhat important. Only 13% of the public believes the annual state assessment is not important at all. 

And yet, there are some educational leaders who, for one reason or another, want to pull wool over the eyes of Georgia’s parents. They look to diminish and eliminate as many data points–at every opportunity –as they can. With so much at stake at this critical juncture, that is not a position we can afford to take.

Should Georgia follow the emerging national pattern of learning loss caused by the pandemic, the results from these exams will paint an ugly picture, angering parents and alarming education policy makers. If your team is losing, you figure out a way to win. You adjust your game plan to get back on track and persevere. You don’t unplug the scoreboard.

Michael O’Sullivan is the Executive Director of GeorgiaCAN, an education advocacy organization committed to building the future of education.