North Carolina is a leader among the states in student testing and evaluating school performance. That’s a sentence I heard repeated in several newspaper stories this past week related to proposed changes in how N.C. tests students. The description is certainly what the state’s public school leaders want us to think, but is it really true? Over the past six months, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Testing and Accountability has met to review the states testing methods. First, let’s remember commissions don’t meet because things are going well. When the commission released its findings last week there were enough significant changes to suggest that the current system of testing is NOT performing well. The commission recommended that NC reduce the number of standardized tests and make the remaining tests more rigorous. It also found that the current testing program fails to make students ready for entering universities or the workplace. Pretty strong words for a system that’s “a leader among the states.”
It’s well known that an unintended side effect of No Child Left Behind and the quest for accountability was the creation of state systems that produced good looking results, mostly through the use of low state standards. Three years ago schools in NC came under increased scrutiny for disparities in student test scores. State students were performing much better on state-mandated exams than they did on nationwide tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The high state test scores did nothing but reflect lower academic standards and prompted new tougher academic performance requirements in 2006.
An article by Harvard Professor Paul Peterson in last fall’s Education Next, a respected national education reform journal, gave North Carolina a D- on the rigor of the state’s proficiency standards. For years teachers have voiced their displeasure with the number of tests, while critics say the results offer little beyond comparisons with other public schools in NC. Let’s hope these new efforts are a first step toward helping a testing system in need of improvement.