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Georgia Milestones tests now carry higher stakes
Standardized tests count as 20 percent of student grades
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High school students in Gainesville and Hall County are used to high-stakes final exams. They’re used to spending hours studying their notes, taking practice tests or reviewing study guides.

But they’re not accustomed to their final exams being the Georgia Milestones.

Last school year, Georgia students took the first administration of the Milestones, a set of tests based on standards in language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. Scores were lower across the state than those on previous state assessments, something the Georgia Department of Education said was expected.

Because of this, the state gave students a one-year waiver. Last year, Milestones did not factor into high school students’ final averages. This year, they will.

The end-of-course Milestones, administered at the high school level, serve as the final exam for each course and “contribute 20 percent to the student’s final course grade,” according to the state.

North Hall High School Principal Jamey Moore said this is not the first time state-mandated, tests factored into students’ final grades.

He said the End of Course Tests, which were retired in 2014, were 15 to 20 percent of students’ final grades and also counted as the final exam.

Shelly Cornett, Gainesville High mathematics teacher, said she feels comfortable with the new test itself, but the new Georgia Standards of Excellence have posed a challenge.

“The standards have been changed so many times that I’m not as comfortable making sure I’m preparing my kids appropriately,” she said. “The curriculum is a little bit different, and I’m sometimes scared I’m going to leave something out.”

Both Hall County and Gainesville teachers, including Cornett, said they teach to the standards, not to the test.

“We have not seen specific materials, but we understand the components are multiple choice, open-ended response and include a writing component,” said Patrice Pennington, English teacher at Flowery Branch High School.

Pennington said the best way for a student to prepare for the end-of-course test in her classes is to “be present and complete assignments throughout the year.” She said each type of assessment — multiple choice, open-ended response and writing — is used in the classroom in group discussions, independent writing, quizzes and so forth.

Her co-worker, Kim McGuirt, agreed. McGuirt said teachers develop tests throughout the year that should reflect the complexity and content on the Milestones.

“We can’t see the test and we don’t know what the questions are going to be,” said Ernie Osburn, physical science teacher at Gainesville High School. “We don’t know what specific content is going to be on it.”

The state does, though, have practice test questions, which students can do on their own and teachers can go over in the classroom.

“We have to assume that the practice test questions and the state standards are aligned,” McGuirt said. “The Georgia Standards of Excellence focus heavily on analysis and writing for language arts, so that’s the focus in my American literature classes, too.”

McGuirt and Osburn said they use a USATestprep tool in their classroom as well, which Osburn said was “very helpful.”

“The week before the test I’m hopefully done teaching the curriculum, and I can kind of go back to the beginning and redeliver,” he said. “That seems to be very helpful for my students as well.”

Gainesville High School ninth-grader Joseph Diaz said he actually preferred the Milestones over the previous Criterion-Reference Competency Tests given to first- through eighth-graders.

“(Milestones) had more open-ended questions, so you could express yourself better,” he said. “Before I think it was more determining who had the best test-taking skills. This seems more skill or knowledge-based.”

Classmate Ben Burns agreed, saying there was an added challenge to the Milestones, but he preferred the format.

Ninth-grader Anne Marie Dye said her teachers, including Cornett, practiced written responses with them regularly.

“It was something we had never done before, but I think we were pretty well-prepared considering,” she said.

Gainesville Assistant Principal Dawn Jordan said she thinks the 20 percent factor into a student’s grade gives a student “a little more skin in the game.”

Osburn agreed, calling it a “motivational tool.”

Cornett added the 20 percent, by the end of the course, will only change a grade by a few percentage points at most.

“The only thing I hate is if it ends up changing it a letter grade,” she said. “But it stays pretty close, so I don’t have a problem with that.”

Osburn said most Gainesville courses also give another kind of “final” that is prepared by the teacher in the classroom.

“My students did a final project in which they used 3-D printers to design a car, print it and race it,” he said. “That was their final, and it was a test grade, but it wasn’t a traditional test. That’s going to be different for every subject, but I felt like after the (end of course) and how much preparation went into that, the testing needed to be finished.”

Cornett said she would prefer to create her own final for her classes.

“I would prefer to write my own exam and have that count, always,” she said. “But I also don’t have any super-negative feelings about the Milestones.”