If you want to find an education issue where there seems to be universal agreement in North Carolina, talk about testing. Most everyone agrees we subject our kids to too much of it.
Unfortunately, that’s true. Right now, testing is driving education, instead of education driving testing. There is a need for accountability. However, the current system has too high a price tag. To correct these problems, major reforms are needed.
Testing is an important topic for many reasons. Test results heavily influence a child’s academic performance. Testing plays a major role in determining school grades on state-issued report cards and can determine whether teachers keep or lose their jobs. Yet hardly a week goes by without some criticism such as “teachers are merely teaching to the test” or “testing is putting excessive pressure on kids to perform, and it’s not healthy.”
How much testing is too much? From third grade through high school, the average public school student will take 18 standardized tests and be engaged in 106 hours of state and federal testing.
There are local, state and federal tests for different subjects, not to mention the in-class quizzes and tests. If you’re a student who is not performing well academically, there is even more testing and re-testing to let teachers know what they need to teach and to ensure students are progressing.
According to the Center for American Progress, almost half (49 percent) of parents think there is too much testing in the classroom. If the question were polled in North Carolina, my guess is the number would be considerably higher.
Teachers seem to agree. The 2014 Teacher Working Conditions survey seems to say teachers also are losing faith in the testing process. Results showed that only 45 percent of teachers believe the tests actually gauge student understanding of academic standards. That was a drop of 10 percentage points from the previous year. In addition, when asked on the same survey if “state assessments provide schools with data that can help improve teaching,” only two-thirds of teachers agreed.
In recent years the quantity of testing has accelerated. In 2011, the North Carolina NCLB waiver continued the End of Grade, End of Course and NC final exams as well as math reading and science assessments. Passage of Read-to-Achieve legislation in 2012 eliminated social promotion and required schools to demonstrate reading proficiency before moving on to the next grade level. The legislation required additional testing time for third-graders and their teachers and added further weight to the outcomes of assessments.
What’s behind all the testing? Educators and policymakers say it’s to ensure teachers know what students are learning. Testing also helps to hold schools accountable for how they use public tax dollars.
State law (G.S. 115C-174.10) says the purpose of North Carolina’s statewide testing program is threefold: to ensure all high school graduates possess minimum skills and knowledge to function in society; to be able to identify strengths and weaknesses in the education process; and to help our education system be more accountable.
But is this effort working? First, is testing making our education system more accountable? That’s hard to believe when satisfaction with public education has long been at best lukewarm. An October 2014 Gallup Poll found 49 percent of respondents dissatisfied with the quality of the education students receive. Only once since 2000 has the percentage for “satisfied” been higher than “dissatisfied.”
Second, what about academically? While recent school reports produced some good news, it should come as no surprise that recent school tests have not produced the best of results. Fifty-two percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in one or more remedial or “developmental” math and/or English courses when they entered North Carolina community colleges. When the first annual school report cards were issued earlier this year, nearly 29 percent of public (including charter) schools received Ds or Fs.
Yes, I’m aware of the controversy over how grades are calculated and the division over student achievement and academic growth. Still, nearly 30 percent of our schools received unsatisfactory or failing grades.
So parents, teachers and the public in general think schools do too much testing. The results expected from testing are hard to see. It’s time to reform the assessment process – and that’s what we’ll discuss in Part II.
 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey, for years 2013 and 2014, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Available at: http://www.ncteachingconditions.org/
 Education Next, Program on Education Policy and Governance, 2014 Poll, Available at: http://educationnext.org/files/2014ednextpoll.pdf
 Gallup Poll, available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx
 North Carolina Community College System, November 2014