Less Testing = More Learning?
NC takes steps to change how tests are administered in public schools
The arrival of the 2019-20 school year brought about changes in testing for North Carolina public schools. As part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction won federal approval to change its math and reading testing policy for elementary and middle schools.
The Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority allows a state education agency (SEA) — or consortium of SEAs — that meet certain application requirements to establish, operate and evaluate an innovative assessment system, potentially for use in a statewide accountability system.
North Carolina’s pilot program is expected to replace end-of year testing with three “through-grade” tests administered throughout the school year that give teachers the opportunity to teach from the results. Such formative assessments differ from summative assessments administered at the end of a school year.
Federal Act Gives States More Control
The Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority is a component of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also approved a similar situation for Georgia public schools for the 2019-20 school year. As part of the program, states can pilot new and innovative assessments on a small scale and avoid double-testing students on both pilot and statewide exams.
“I’m pleased that Georgia and North Carolina are rethinking how to assess student achievement in ways that are more relevant and connected to the classroom,” DeVos says. “This pilot program gives states that are willing to try a new approach an opportunity to assess student achievement without sacrificing rigor or skirting accountability. I look forward to seeing the impact this study will have on student outcomes.”
The push for reduced testing grew from the North Carolina Board of Education’s Task Force on Summative Assessment in 2014-15, through which educators, parents and other stakeholders first developed the current system of through-grade assessments.
“Based on the task force recommendations, we built instruments referred to as N.C. Check-Ins,” says Tammy Howard, director of accountability services for NCDPI. “There are three of those available throughout the school year. They are in place now. Districts and schools use those on a voluntary basis. The feedback on those has been very positive.”
How Assessments Will Change
In this pilot program, the final and third assessment will be based on the first two formative assessments, featuring a cluster of test questions that reflect a student’s performance on the first two assessments.
“We have two through-grade assessments that are shorter in length, that are intended to give feedback to teachers on how students are doing on those content standards,” Howard says. “We still have an end-of-year assessment that has the last set of standards. We can, in effect, use those first two assessments to determine which of two different (final) assessments students should take.”
Either final assessment gives students the opportunity to show proficiency, Howard says.
“Regardless of which assessment the student takes at the end of the year, they can demonstrate that they are proficient,” she says. “They still have the capability to demonstrate as much as they would have on the traditional end of grade [test].”
A Welcome Reduction
Parents and educators have long objected to too much testing for various reasons. Some say too many tests take a toll on anxious test-takers, or negatively impact students who have trouble remaining attentive for several hours. The resulting stress is not beneficial to these students or their test results.
“Most educators, including myself, would agree that the volume of assessment that is going on right now is way too high, and it has a negative effect on our children,” says Justin Parmenter, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. “We could spend time doing collaborative projects, and exploring and creating all those things that are foundational to our kids to develop some intrinsic motivation and an overall love of school.”
During this pilot year, there will still be frequent testing. Elementary students began testing on day 11 of the 2019-20 school year and face tests throughout the year as well as end-of-grade (EOG) tests and, for third graders, the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) and Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS).
“I looked at how many days instructionally that third grade alone missed because they have the most testing K-5,” says one veteran elementary school teacher for Wake County Public School System who prefers to remain anonymous. “It was 15 or 16 days. That’s a lot of instruction lost. There are so many things I feel like we could do with kids to get them that information, like project-based learning. They’re going to learn so much more from that, versus sitting and taking a three-hour test.”
The 2019-20 school year will be a planning year for the pilot program, according to Howard. In 2020-21, testing will be installed for fourth-grade math and seventh-grade reading. The entire program will be implemented in 2023-24.
Another change for the 2019-20 school year is the use of a new reading assessment tool in kindergarten through third grade, which already faces criticism. NCDPI has contracted with iStation for the next three years, which replaces mCLASS, assessment and instructional suite for early literacy development.
Istation is a web-based system that tests students on tablets, rather than under the direct assessment of teachers. Some teachers and advocacy groups have expressed concern about the Istation contract awarded by North Carolina Superintendent of Public Education Mark Johnson.
“We don’t believe the program has been vetted, peer-reviewed and researched to show that it does what it claims,” says Suzanne Miller, founder of NC Families for School Testing Reform. “It’s putting children on devices for testing, which we don’t believe is appropriate developmentally for kindergarten through third grade.”
Others feel the diagnostic assessment tool isn’t the problem.
“I’m not sure it really matters — whether it’s Istation or mCLASS — if we’re not focusing on what is the most effective way to teach reading,” Parmenter says. “If kids aren’t learning how to read, it’s not because of the test. Instructional time is key and instructional practices are probably even more important.”
What most people do agree on, however, is finding a better balance between testing and teaching, even if it takes trying something new.
“The intention is to not have as much testing, but to have information that is readily available when it can be helpful, which is throughout the school year,” Howard says. “Is this going to actually require more testing? That remains to be seen.”
Kurt Dusterberg is an Apex parent of two and author of “Journeymen: 24 Bittersweet Tales of Short Major League Sports Careers.” He also covers the Carolina Hurricanes for NHL.com.