Education

Georgia Makes The Transition To Online Testing

The state-issued Georgia Milestones test will be administered 100 percent online this year.  
The state-issued Georgia Milestones test will be administered 100 percent online this year.  
Credit Christine Armario / Associated Press

It’s testing time for kids in Georgia’s public schools. But this year, no students will have to sharpen their number two pencils to take the Georgia Milestones. The state-issued standardized test is 100 percent online this year.

Slow And Steady Wins The Race

The transition has been gradual.

“It was a multi-year process,” says Allison Timberlake, deputy superintendent of testing and accountability at the Georgia Department of Education. “Our first Milestones administration was in 2015, and we were 53 percent online that year. Then that increased incrementally over the years.”

Timberlake says in 2016, 73 percent of the Georgia Milestones tests were administered online. In 2017, that grew to 85 percent. In 2018, it was 88 percent.

“It was a slow transition to give all schools and districts the time they needed to work out the logistics and the technology and get ready for that,” Timberlake says.

Other states and districts have also made the shift to online tests. Bonnie O’Keefe, a partner with Bellwether Education Partners, has studied the trend.

“I think that it’s good that Georgia has made this a multi-year transition,” she said. “It means that they know what to look out for, what problems to anticipate as they go fully online.”

One problem Georgia encountered was that some schools didn’t have enough bandwidth to take tests online.  Chris Shealy, director of technology services for the Georgia Department of Education, says the state had to update those systems.

“Think about it like your home access,” Shealy said. “You know, everyone’s always offering faster, faster, faster. So, what we did is we kind of did the same, we did a big upgrade across the state.”

In past years, some schools reported problems with online tests. Sometimes pages took too long to load or wifi connectivity wasn’t strong enough. If the problems were severe enough, the state didn’t count the test scores against the school in evaluation measures.

Shealy says there haven’t been any major problems this year.

“The only problems that have been reported are just minor problems, usually it’s within a network,” he said. “Usually we have those fixed and going within a matter of hours.

He says the problems schools have described this year wouldn’t affect students’ scores. In addition, state officials have access to dashboards, where they can see who’s testing, how many students are testing by district and how things are going.

Bonnie O’Keefe says it’s hard to completely eliminate problems during standardized testing, whether the test is on paper or online.

“Even in the case of paper tests, there have always been weird things that happen on test days, she said. “Who gets sick in the classroom, someone is disruptive…the business of standardizing standardized tests has always been pretty complicated.”

Troubleshooting should be baked into a state’s testing plan, she says.

A Different Way Of Testing

As part of the transition, schools have adjusted to the differences between paper and online tests. For example, with online administrations, some schools test students in computer labs. Others use tablets.

Often, with paper assessments, the entire school tests at the same time. In past years, the state has asked schools to choose a two-week testing period within a six-week window. This year, schools can choose when they test. Timberlake says schools can use the entire six weeks if they need to.

“You don’t have the whole school testing at the same time,” she said.

The GDOE also says the online version of Georgia Milestones is more secure than its paper counterpart.

“Once the paper’s done away with, there was little for people to go around and try to get ahold of, you know, answer documents or test booklets,” Shealy said.

Schools don’t have to store and lock test booklets anymore. And even though students in the same grade are tested on the same content, their tests may not be exactly the same, Shealy says.

“[Students] have a test ticket that is generated just for them,” he said. “The machines are locked down—called kiosk mode—they only see the test. They can’t break out and do Google searches. When the test is over, that ticket’s closed. They can’t get back in.”

There’s also a difference in cost. Timberlake says if the state were to give just 10 percent of its test on paper this year, it would have cost an extra $2 million. That’s not likely to be a concern, though, because the state says online tests are here to stay.