We know Georgia’s new state tests are harder. But are they better?

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow. The Institute’s new study, “Evaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments,” is available here.

By Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio

A wise old African saying cautions that “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Back in 2013, Georgia policymakers made a hasty decision to go it alone on standardized testing, pulling out of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC). States are — and should be — in charge of such matters, and the authority of local lawmakers should be respected. But it’s worth asking whether this particular decision did a disservice to Georgia’s children.

That’s one possible inference from a new study published by our organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — the first independent, comprehensive evaluation ever undertaken of PARCC and competing tests. Our analysts — highly experienced educators and content assessment experts — found that PARCC indeed delivers on its promise to be a high-quality, challenging assessment that’s well matched to the new standards that Georgia and most other states adopted in 2010.

This is a significant accomplishment. The standardized tests that most states had been using previously were criticized for decades, and for good reason. They were mostly cheap, low-level, fill-in-the-blank tests that were easy to game and that encouraged teachers to spend endless classroom hours on mindless test-prep. (In Atlanta and some other places, sadly, they also proved susceptible to cheating.)

How much homework is too much? How much causes family stresses?

Georgia introduced its new Milestones tests last year, but there has not been an independent evaluation of their quality.

By 2010, when the Common Core initiative emerged, policymakers in Georgia and most other states had recognized these problems and set out to address them. Their solution was to replace the old tests with “next generation” assessments like PARCC and the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) test. About half of states administered one of these two tests in 2014-15 — and these turned out to be, by no small margin, the highest-rated tests in our evaluation.

Along the way, however, the Common Core became politically radioactive, which led some states, including Georgia, to bail on the common assessments, even while holding the line on the underlying standards.

Today, nobody can be sure whether the alternative test that Georgia has adopted — known as “Milestones” — is a good one, as there’s never been an independent evaluation of it such as the one just completed for PARCC and the other national exams. Peach State policymakers should commission one, pronto.

Objective reviewers — including Georgia’s teachers and other content and assessment experts — should determine whether the tests place sufficient emphasis on the most important content needed for college and career readiness and whether they expect all students to demonstrate the full range of thinking skills called for by the rigorous standards that Georgia’s schools are supposed to be implementing.

If the answers are anything less than an emphatic “yes,” state officials might consider adopting individual test items from PARCC (or SBAC) in order to beef up the Milestones exams without ceding control of content to a multi-state organization.

Given the powerful effects that tests have on what happens in schools, the crucial criterion for judging them is simply put: does the test encourage the kind of curriculum and instruction we want for children? In the case of the PARCC and SBAC tests, the answer from our review is “yes.”

Standardized tests are not universally loved but they’re here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. They continue to drive classroom practice and are used to evaluate schools, principals, and teachers. With so much riding on them, we ought to take the time to get them right. Especially if we want our children to go far in life.


Reader Comments 0

Beach Bound2020
Beach Bound2020

This article reads like an advertisement for a company that is losing market share.  I love the way they state "evaluation" thinking that most readers won't know the difference between an evaluation and actual research. An evaluation does not by definition have to include data, and funny how the authors did not in their piece.  

I'm no fan of Milestones.  I'm no fan of PARCC.  But the thought that most makes me fume, is the idea of one more penny of tax money being wasted on assessment in this state and not being spent where it is most needed - in the classroom and on additional teachers.


I would argue that its not so much the tests that matter, its what you do with the information that comes back from it.  Standardized tests are not evil, they serve a purpose...to see how well an individual takes said test.  A good score generally does correlate to having some knowledge and a bad score generally does correlate to having less knowledge.  The problem is when you try to make a test of an individual become a measuring stick for the masses, to assess many things with one tool that doesn't really do that well and measuring anything but test taking.  This is true for any test.  Whether its CRCT or Milestones or ITBS or LSAT or bar exam, they all measure the ability to take a test on the content of those tests.  They, a lot like paper money, only really have value to those who value the scores on those tests. In K-12 education, tt is less important to argue about whether testing is good or bad, and a better use of time and energy to focus on the question of how can we use standardized tests to be one of many data points that help determine what students may demonstrated mastery of to date.  Even college and universities - the thing we are chasing with all these tests- don't let you in or keep you out of admissions based solely on an ACT score.  They look at an essay, a portfolio, an interview, and an academic history.  Why is that such a challenge for us to do when we evaluate schools and teachers and students?  Measuring learning is not something that boils down to a snapshot at one moment of time. 

A farmer who has taken the time and energy to rotate crops, to bank seed, to use best practices for fertilization and cultivation and irrigation has years of bumper crops.  A flood comes and wipes out the farm in one year and all the crops are ruined. Do we call that farmer a failure? For our kids and schools, floods come in the forms of poverty, reduced resources, and competing interests with the educational process.  

Lets use standardized tests in responsible and contextualized ways that actually advance the cause of learning for all kids.


In the aftermath of The Great Recession, who in the GaDOE made the policy decision to remove state funding from local education agencies' purchasing of the ITBS and other proven, "off-the-shelf" measures of academic achievement?

More recently, who in the GaDOE made the policy decision to sign a multi-milllion-dollar test-generation contract with a private vendor?

In an era when there are well-deserved calls for student and teacher accountability, should the people of Georgia not expect accountability from its educrats in The Twin Towers?


Why do we have standardized tests when each child is unique?


This is a laughable attempt to prop up PARC, SBAC and Common Core with propaganda masquerading as research. It's also a feeble attempt do two other things. One is attempting to browbeat parents into accepting the current testing regime as fait accompli, "standardized tests are not universally loved but are here to stay". The other is trying to con parents into thinking that the very same organizations (Fordham, Gates, et al) that have funded and lobbied for the very issues that are angering parents are really the good guys because they have the "good" tests. You would think at some point that they'd figure out that parents aren't going to be easily cowed and that they aren't as clueless as the masters of the education universe appear to think, but that's not the case apparently.

No doubt the Milestones are poorly designed, and I'm not a Common Core hater, but I'm not a political naïf either. This is a marketing white paper not a legitimate study.


"Georgia introduced its new Milestones tests last year, but there has not been no independent evaluation of their quality."

First point.