The percentage of students in the Bulloch County Schools meeting proficiency levels on the Georgia Milestones tests improved in 15 of 30 tested subjects and grade levels from the spring 2016 to the spring 2017 testing.
But local students’ success rates on the tests were lower than last year’s in 14 other grade and subject areas and remained unchanged in one area. Meanwhile, Bulloch County’s students “outperformed, matched or closely mirrored” the results of students statewide this spring in 16 of 30 tested areas, the school system’s news release announced.
In an interview, Bulloch County Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson acknowledged mixed feelings about these results, but said he was encouraged by the gains, especially in reading scores.
“What we are seeing is some improvement in reading, and to me that’s a huge encouragement,” he said. “But we have got to make a very focused effort.”
Educational research has long shown that students who cannot read at grade level before they leave elementary school tend to fall behind in other subjects and that the deficit is hard to overcome.
“We’re getting ready to get much more intentional on the issue of ensuring our kids are reading on grade level by third grade,” Wilson said. “We all know it needs to happen, and we’re going to see a much more committed effort toward that. But reading does show some indicators of progress.”
A majority of the Bulloch County’s elementary and middle schools showed gains in reading on the Milestones tests for third through eighth grades. The local school system’s news release noted this, and the charts provided by Hayley Greene, the Bulloch County Schools public relations specialist, show reading results as a separate category.
But the Georgia Department of Education did not extract reading results from overall English language arts results in the statewide report released Thursday.
The local charts of Georgia Milestones achievement rates, including those of individual schools, can be found on the school system’s website: www.bulloch.k12.ga.us.
Third-grade reading was the one tested area where the portion of Bulloch County students achieving the proficient or distinguished levels, 72 percent, remained unchanged from 2016 to 2017.
But the countywide success rate on the reading tests rose one point in fourth grade, five points in fifth grade, two points in seventh grade and two points in eighth grade. The success rate on the sixth-grade reading test declined four points.
On the third-grade reading, fourth-grade reading, seventh-grade reading and eighth-grade reading tests, 70 percent or more of students in each grade achieved the proficient or distinguished levels, Greene noted.
Her charts also combine results of winter and spring end-of-course tests from the three Bulloch County high schools. This reflects the fact that some courses end with fall semester. But the statewide and district results the Georgia Department of Education released Thursday are from spring testing only.
Milestones’ third year
In the 2016-17 school term, the Georgia Milestones Assessment System, or GMAS, was in its third year as the state-required testing program for public schools. The program includes end-of-course tests in high schools and end-of-grade tests for third through eighth grades.
The state reports four levels of student achievement on the tests, from lowest to highest: Beginning Learners, Developing Learners, Proficient Learners and Distinguished Learners. Only students scoring at the proficient and distinguished levels meet the expected standards for their grade levels.
In its news release, the state Department of Education noted that the percentage of students achieving the proficient level or higher increased or held steady in 18 of the 26 tested areas reported. Specifically, statewide success rates rose on 12 of the tests, remained the same on six tests and decreased on eight.
The department also announced several gains in English language arts and math scores at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
“Our students’ performance continues to trend upward, and some of these gains are particularly encouraging,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said in the release. “Seeing scores increase in areas like third-grade (English) and math, while also seeing large jumps in subjects like American Literature, affirms that we’re on the right path as we focus on foundational skills and early literacy and numeracy, both of which equip students for success in the later grades.”
In tested grade and subject areas where the statewide achievement levels declined, they did so by three percentage points or less. But in the areas with gains, the increases ranged as high as 12 percentage points.
Three years ago when Georgia introduced its new assessment system, the state asked “teachers and students to clear a much higher bar,” and they still have work to do, Woods said.
With Senate Bill 364, signed into law in May 2016, the Legislature and governor reduced the testing requirements. Students in third through eighth grades are still tested in reading, English language arts and math, but now the science and social studies tests are required only at the end of fifth and eighth grades.
High school courses requiring end-of-course tests are ninth-grade Literature and Composition, American Literature and Composition, Coordinate Algebra, Analytic Geometry, Algebra I, Geometry, Biology, Physical Science, U.S. History and Economics.
Bulloch County’s middles schools offer some freshman-level high school courses to advanced students, so these schools also have some end-of-course test scores.
Bulloch’s biggest gains
Bulloch’s biggest subject-specific gain in student achievement was a jump of 18.4 percentage points in ninth-grade Literature and Composition. Last school year, 53.6 percent of students scored proficient or higher in this course, up from 35.2 percent in 2015-2016.
In the second-highest gain, 55.6 percent of local high school students scored at or above the proficiency level in American Literature, up from 39.2 percent the year before, a 16.4-point gain.
In the seventh and eighth grades, the percentage of Bulloch County students scoring at proficiency or higher exceeded the success rates of students statewide in seven of the eight tested areas. Six of the county’s nine elementary schools showed gains in six or more of the 11 areas tested for third through fifth grades.
But at the same time, “for every one of those, we have one where we’ve kind of slipped or need to improve, so I have mixed feelings about it,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to look for the things that are working and we’re trying to look for the things that we need to improve.”
Heart of CCRPI
Milestones scores are the largest component, but not the only one, in the College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI, Georgia’s required measure of school performance. Under a contract with the state, the 15 schools in the Bulloch County system are required to close the gap between their 2016 CCRPI scores and expected levels by 3 percent annually if not already hitting the mark. Each school has its own improvement plan.
Earlier this year, the international accrediting organization AdvancED renewed the Bulloch County Schools’ accreditation for five years, with praise from the review team for the school district’s improvement strategies.
“What all of this tells us is that we still have some work to do,” Wilson said Friday, adding that the effort requires commitment from the community and school system.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.