RALEIGH — A State Board of Education task force may scrap longstanding end-of-grade tests for a system of interim assessments designed to provide more reliable and immediate data to identify students who need help in core subject areas.
“Essentially the current testing model is a very effective system for data collection, but it’s not a very effective system of informing instruction,” said the state board’s vice chairman Al “Buddy” Collins, who heads the agency’s Task Force on Summative Assessment comprising 25 volunteer community and education members, during a recent hearing in Wake County Superior Court.
“The difficulty we have with end-of-grade testing as presently computed is that the information’s received … after the school year is over with, with very little feedback,” Collins said.
That prevents teachers from being able to know “exactly what they missed or they did not teach well on the test,” Collins said. That, in turn, “has a significant limitation with respect to what teachers need on informing instruction, and with what principals need to evaluate their teachers.”
Equipping teachers with a more useful assessment tool to help them improve “exponentially increases the likelihood of the child being successful,” Collins said.
Collins spoke a Wednesday hearing before Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., who had asked for an update about the task force’s work in the event that it might propose measures that would run afoul of the mandates in the Leandro case.
In Leandro, the state Supreme Court ruled that every student in North Carolina has a constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education. At the opening of Wednesday’s hearing, Manning spent more than 30 minutes in a scathing commentary, noting that 44 schools identified in 2006 as failing that mandate still do not meet it, despite spending $1.7 billion on intervention programs since 2009.
“That remains an ongoing problem,” Manning said. “If you were GE, or Google, or Microsoft, you wouldn’t be supporting any of them. You would have closed the plant down or either fired everybody in the school and got somebody to get the job done.”
Collins said the task force has made no specific recommendations to the board, but it may do so within the next few weeks.
The prospective timeline calls for making a recommendation to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee in June. Changes to end-of-grade testing likely would need legislative approval.
If a program is devised “that could be executed faithfully,” it could be launched as a pilot project next year, as 23 school districts have expressed interest, Collins said.
Any plan would have to comply with the state constitution (including Leandro mandates), state law, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Individuals with Disabilities Act, and a waiver agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to No Child Left Behind standards would have to be amended before any changes can be made, he said.
The end-of-grade test “drives all other tests in the school,” Collins said.
As a result, local school districts have created a number of tests during the school year to prepare their students for the end of grade tests, but they are not aligned with the actual test, he said.
Still, the task force saw value in interim testing, and is seeking a testing design that would fit with the ACT test.
“One of the most effective ways of professional development is finding a teacher early, and finding a teacher’s deficiencies early, and putting them in a professional learning community situation to improve that instruction,” Collins said.
Interim assessments would show whether a teacher appropriately addressed the learning needs of a child, and provide data comparing a teacher’s effectiveness to that of colleagues.
“That tells the principal that they need to address this concern and rectify that, and therefore taking a teacher who otherwise might continue to make mistakes in a classroom and put them on a trajectory to improve,” Collins said.
Additionally, the data might show that a principal is evaluating teachers incorrectly, and may not understand the data available.
Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said costs and time involvement “would be a major concern” with any task force recommendation.
“But even more daunting would be the task of persuading legislators and families that the reconfiguration of the testing program will boost student achievement without subjecting children to excessive testing,” Stoops said.
He “found it curious” that Manning called a hearing partly to discuss a draft proposal, especially because there is no guarantee that the General Assembly and State Board of Education would concur with the working group’s recommendations.
“Although it is not clear that Judge Manning recognizes it, North Carolina has had a broken testing program for some time,” Stoops said.
“But I do not think that its shortcomings have much to do with when and how we test. Rather, it is a matter of who manages the testing program and what they test,” Stoops said.
He said the state Department of Public Instruction’s management of the testing program “has been frustrating at best and disgraceful at worst,” with teachers having long complained of a disconnection between tested material and the state’s standards and curriculum.
For years, the John Locke Foundation has called for the end of state-developed tests and adoption of an independent, credible national test of student performance, he said. Manning’s support for the requirement that all high school students take the ACT “suggests that we would welcome the change.”
Notwithstanding Wednesday’s hearing, Stoops said elected officials need to consider legal options that would put Leandro to rest.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “liberals want to keep the case alive as long as possible, hoping that it will eventually lead to a court-mandated increase of spending on public schools.”
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.