When some students sit down to take the Georgia Milestones test next month, the stakes will be higher than they were last spring.
As announced when the test was first implemented, the 2015-16 school year is the first year that the test will play a role in the student promotion process.
"The Georgia Milestones is a direct reflection of what should've been taught throughout the year," said Tanzy Kilcrease, Bibb County's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
Students in the third grade will have to be on or above grade level in the reading score that comes from the language arts test, while fifth- and eighth-graders will need to meet that requirement while also scoring as a "developing learner" or better on the math assessment. "Developing" is the second of four designations for scores on Georgia Milestones tests, higher than "beginning" but beneath "proficient" and "distinguished."
A student isn't deemed truly prepared for the next grade unless he or she scores "proficient," while "developing learners" can be promoted but will need some remedial work to get up to speed.
"We want to ensure that our students have the necessary skills to be successful in that next grade," Kilcrease said.
To prepare parents for the change, Bibb County held a pair of information sessions this week, one of which was Wednesday. Parents also had other chances to hear the details of the presentation, which will also be available online.
"They're having these meetings at the schools. This is just an additional opportunity," said Stephanie Hartley, the district's communications director.
Just three parents attended Wednesday's session after a crowd of about 35 Tuesday night.
Students in the third through 12th grade take the Georgia Milestones as an assessment of student progress in math, language arts, science and social studies, and the scores are used in both school -- and teacher -- evaluations. About 60 percent of the tests are expected to be administered online this year, with a state goal of 100 percent online testing in the next few years.
"We are pushing to do the third, fifth and eighth grade, at least, online, so we can get those test scores back quickly," Kilcrease said.
The Milestones requirements come in addition to standards for achievement in the classroom as well as attendance rules. A student must pass reading, math and at least one other core class while also having fewer than 10 unexcused absences.
CONCERNS ABOUT PREPARATION
Parent Emily Howard -- whose son, Tyler, is in the eighth grade at Rutland Middle School -- said the meeting alleviated some of her worries about the new requirements.
"At first I was concerned because I was uninformed," she said. "This session was very informative."
She said she wasn't worried about Tyler's passing the Milestones assessments if it lined up with what was being taught in the classrooms.
"He has always been good in testing," she said.
Howard was joined by Angelo Billingslea, whose son, Ameer, is in the eighth grade at Howard, Billingslea asked about teacher preparation in advance of these all-important tests next month.
"That's my biggest concern is that the teachers are getting what they need," she said.
That concern is shared by Kilcrease, who said the district has been doing "instructional rounds" at various schools to observe the educators in action.
During their visits, Kilcrease said district office staff members had three characteristics of the classroom in mind.
"What is this teacher saying and doing, what are the students saying and doing, and what is the task we're asking these students to do?" she said.
Once those visits were complete, staffers discussed their perceptions and gave feedback to teachers.
All of that is in hopes of improving on last year's scores, which were used as a baseline and didn't factor into promotion.
In fifth grade, for instance, just 56.9 percent of Bibb County's students scored well enough in math to meet promotion requirements -- had the Milestones test been a part of the equation.
"We're hoping with another year of implementation, another year of preparation, those scores do get better," Kilcrease said.
Georgia Milestones assessments will be administered April 14-29, with retests scheduled for May 17-18.
Students who don't pass the original test will be enrolled in a Summer Opportunity Program from June 6-30, where they will continue to learn with the hopes that they can make progress. Once retest scores are received during that same time period, those who pass the second time around -- after four weeks of remediation during the school year -- will be promoted.
Those who still do not score high enough for a second time can appeal for placement in the next grade through a committee consisting of a parent, the school principal and one of their teachers. Performance during the summer program will be considered, and while Kilcrease said students would have a "good chance" of moving on if they showed progress, it wouldn't be automatic.
That's a change from 2006, for example, when 93 percent of students who failed Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests were promoted anyway due to standard practice within the district, Kilcrease said.
"We do not want that to be a repeat," she said.
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331 or find him on Twitter@MTJTimm.