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John Hood's Syndicated Weekly Column

Read All About The Testing Fiasco

Oct. 10th, 2008
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RALEIGH – North Carolina’s testing program has been a laughable fraud for years. Now, finally, parents and taxpayers may be getting a sense of just how poorly they’ve been served by North Carolina’s educational and political leaders.

The state has just released 2007-08 reading scores for grades 3-8. In past years, such releases have been accompanied by self-congratulatory press releases and crowded press conferences where state officials preened in front of the TV cameras. But this year, as far as I can tell, there have been no big press avails, no interviews, not even a simple press release.

The explanation is easily summarized with two numbers. The first is 88 percent. That’s the average number of students who scored at or above grade level in reading in 2007. The second is 57 percent. That’s the average pass rate on the 2008 reading exams.

How could reading proficiency plummet so swiftly in just one year? It couldn’t, of course. It has never been the case that 80 percent to 90 percent of North Carolina schoolchildren were good readers. In the past, the state’s tests were ridiculously easy to pass, as my JLF colleagues and I have long maintained. In some grades, the “cut score” – the minimum number of questions a student had to answer correctly to achieve grade-level proficiency – was set so low that a student had a high probability of “passing” through random chance.

The Department of Public Instruction explains that the 2007-08 passing rates are low because the reading tests, like the math tests before them, have been redesigned. Okay. But it shouldn’t have taken a decade to redo them. For years, DPI and (probably clueless) politicians cited sky-high passing rates as proof that their pet educational projects, ranging from Smart Start to teacher-pay hikes, were bearing fruit. It was always nonsensical to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the data. Now, perhaps, the nonsense will become more broadly recognized.

It would be one thing if the reading-test fiasco had been an isolated incident. But it wasn’t. DPI has a history of misrepresenting the performance of North Carolina’s public schools, using testing instruments and statistics that no reasonable person at the department could have believed to be valid and informative. For example, the state grossly overestimated its graduation rate in reports to the federal government, using a definition that wasn’t just problematic but inescapably dishonest.

We’ll have a new governor by January. The most important education reform he or she could implement is to establish public confidence in the state’s testing program. Every other policy debate in education – teacher compensation, funding inequities, busing, parental choice, curriculum reform, etc. – depends on a foundation of useful data about student outcomes. Otherwise, it’s all speculation, impossible to be subjected to verification with trustworthy empirical data. Here are the steps the next governor must take:

• Undertake a thorough housecleaning at DPI. Pat McCrory (or Mike Munger) would probably find this idea a lot easier to swallow than Beverly Perdue would, but if she wins it is still clearly in her interest to follow through. The current senior personnel have done more than enough to thoroughly destroy their credibility. It can’t be regained. Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that the elected state superintendent has a real say in this. The true head of DPI is the deputy superintendent, appointed by the governor. I’m not calling for patronage appointments, far from it. I mean fire the authors of the past decade of educational malpractice and statistical garbage, and hire competent replacements.

• Give up on the notion that state government can design and implement its own testing program. The argument for a North Carolina-only approach, that it allows the tests to fit North Carolina’s curriculum, was always questionable (why should the state’s public schools have an idiosyncratic curriculum to begin with?) and is now massively outweighed by considerations of validity, cost, and comparability. North Carolina should purchase off-the-shelf tests from independent national companies.

• Guarantee transparency. Educators, policy analysts, reporters, and parents should be able to examine prior tests and have access to cut scores and other information. Too much trouble? Too bad. When you mislead the public for a decade, the public has good reason to be skeptical.

Here’s the kicker. Given what we now know about the structural flaws and perverse incentives imbedded in North Carolina’s testing program, it is highly likely that the 57 percent pass rate reported for 2008 is still too high. Certainly, the federal definition of educational proficiency is far stricter, such that only a third or so of North Carolina students qualify.

If you’re not furious, you’re not paying attention.

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Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.