State test scores set new baseline for Bibb Schools students

Students+return+for+in-person+classes+on+Nov.+9%2C+2020+at+Ingram+Pye+Elementary+in+Macon%2C+Ga.+They+went+virtual+again+a+few+weeks+later.+

Grant Blankenship/GPB News

Students return for in-person classes on Nov. 9, 2020 at Ingram Pye Elementary in Macon, Ga. They went virtual again a few weeks later.

When it comes to statewide standardized test scores for Georgia public school students, the past is in the past.

The Georgia Department of Education will use the scores from the Georgia Milestones test students took in the spring as the new baseline for measuring growth and progress in core academic areas. The reset by the state comes after nearly two years of pandemic-related interruptions to in-person classes.

For a school district like Bibb County, which has a poverty rate of 96%, results of statewide assessments don’t always capture the full picture of where students are academically or how the district works to increase achievement.

“Because we are in a highly impoverished area, sometimes the initial performance will not be stellar compared to some of the other districts in the metro area that have some pretty strong performance results coming out,” Bibb Schools Chief Information Officer Kevin Adams said. “We want the best for our students and feel really good about the way we deliver that. Sometimes the Milestones are not the right data to look at to see that.”

GaDOE will use the 2022 scores to help determine where to offer support to continue addressing the impact on student learning that came with pandemic-related interruptions.

The state will use the scores to identify where supports are needed to continue addressing the impact of lost learning opportunities.

GaDOE cautioned against making comparisons with data from 2021 and 2020 because testing was optional. Even so, GaDOE used data from those years to conclude there had been “strong improvement” reflected in scores that “clearly show that academic recovery is underway in Georgia’s public schools,” according to a news release from the state.

Since GaDOE recommends using the 2022 scores as the new baseline, no comparisons were made by the state with the last couple of years to indicate how much progress the district made in closing achievement gaps, something Adams said is a strength for Bibb Schools.

“We get pretty impressive growth from our students because we take them under the arms and move them forward,” Adams said, adding that sometimes students who are identified as “beginning learners,” the lowest tier of performance, can make dramatic progress and still be classified as such.

GaDOE spokeswoman Meghan Frick said the department is comfortable making comparisons at the state level because, “while participation decreased in 2021, our assessment team analyzed the participation data and found that the students who tested were still broadly representative of our student population. … That’s not necessarily the case for individual schools and districts.”

Bibb Schools also has no plan to make comparisons with 2019 data, the most recent apples-to-apples comparison possible. The state received a federal waiver for testing in 2020 and in 2021, and only some students took the test.

“No one’s expecting any district to be in line with where they were before Covid,” Adams said. “So the 2019 results are not connected to our 2022 results in that there is that distinct difference in what our students have experienced with the past couple years.”

The Macon Newsroom compared school-level results of the Georgia Milestones test scores in 2022 with 2019. Particular attention was given to analyzing third grade reading scores because numerous studies have correlated poor scores in that area with the increased likelihood a student will drop out later and have poorer outcomes in life. Third grade has been identified as a critical time to measure that because it’s when students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” 

Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School was the only Bibb School to demonstrate an increase in the percentage of students reading on grade level for the third grade compared to pre-pandemic data.

In 2019, 33.9% of the 112 third grade students there were reading above grade level. In 2022, 40.2% of the 92 third grade students enrolled were reading above grade level.

“We were really intentional about meaning with our teachers, going through that instructional framework,” Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Principal Principal Tawanya Wilson said, adding that the school had not compared scores to 2019 to identify that growth. “It’s just a baseline for us, basically, because I get goosebumps thinking about what we’re going to do this year. I really do.”

Principals have access to the same tools, resources and support at every Bibb school, but how each approaches the job can make a difference in the culture and climate for teachers and students. For Wilson, who attended the school as an elementary student and later graduated from Northeast High School, the job is personal.

“The approach that I have taken, long story short, is to build relationships and to let everybody know that what they think matters, how they feel matters, and how we can all come together to build a strong community climate for everybody,” Wilson said. “I am a teacher at heart. I love going into classrooms.”

A nationwide shortage of teachers has affected Bibb Schools in several ways, including an increase in “waiver teachers” who are not yet state certified but have the education and are working toward certification.

The number of waiver teachers at MLK has fluctuated over the past three years Wilson has been principal. Wilson said she takes the same approach with teachers and students.

“Children of poverty think differently than the middle class. And so it’s not that they’re incapable. It’s just they have not been exposed to certain things. So that is our job here to expose our children to what they need to know and show them what they’ve never seen before,” Wilson said. “Same thing with my teachers, we have waiver teachers that haven’t been exposed and seen it, they don’t know.”

Wilson said she has a team looking at the latest Georgia Milestones scores and has plans to meet with teachers to talk about “what next steps we need to take to take us to the next level.”

Wilson said she expects the return to consistent in-person instruction will help with closing achievement gaps in reading and math. In 2021, the school had 83% of its third graders take the Georgia Milestones test and 74.4% scored reading below grade level.

“Children need their teachers just like children need their moms, they need their dads,” Wilson said. “They need them to be there. They need that additional support. I need to be able to sit next to you. They need the relationship, they need the love. They need to see that you care. Even though teachers were there, it’s different. It was more like a long distance relationship.”

As school starts back Aug. 3, “we can celebrate that we have 600 children in this building, ready to learn,” Wilson said. “They want to be here. Rain or shine, they will come.”

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected]