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Editorial: Writing off writing tests

It comes as little surprise that the State Board of Education decided to discard the standardized writing tests administered to fourth-, seventh- and 10th-grade students. Last week’s vote followed an earlier recommendation from an education task force that had made reducing the number of standardized tests administered to N.C. students one of its goals.
It’s a goal that many support, given the chronic criticisms that federal No Child Left Behind mandates and state-level accountability measurements have placed too much emphasis on testing and contributed to “teach to the test” educational environments. But the decision to kill the writing assessments raises some cautionary flags, especially following celebratory reports that many N.C. schools significantly improved their scores on the most recent round of the writing assessment. That included Rowan-Salisbury, where writing scores jumped for all grade groups, topped by a 24 percent surge for 10th-graders.
The board’s decision was based in part on the belief that administering the assessment in only three “benchmark” grades implied that writing wasn’t as important for other grades. If the curriculum isn’t emphasizing writing skills at all levels, that’s a grave concern and a huge disservice to students. But that doesn’t appear to be the reality in the Rowan-Salisbury System. In a column published in Sunday’s Post (and still accessible on our Web site), Dr. Judy Grissom ticked off several writing-support programs that have been implemented across all grade levels. The superintendent noted that at the elementary level teachers “developed and reinforced writing skills during the year.” At the middle and high school level, each school “developed a writing plan to address the diverse needs of their student populations.” That sounds like a broad-based approach to teaching writing skills, not a strategically narrow initiative aimed simply at boosting scores in isolated grades.
The board’s decision also raises the question of what kind of writing assessments will replace those being dropped. That’s a concern very much on the mind of Phil Kirk, state board chairman emeritus, who posted an online comment to Grissom’s Sunday that read in part: “It is a joke that they are replacing the statewide assessments with ‘local decisions’ and ‘assessing writing at every grade level.’ This was the same excuse given by those who did not want statewide consistent writing assessments. Several years ago educators pressured the State Board of Education to abolish writing tests and instead of doing that, I created a statewide task force to improve and strengthen the writing tests and to make them fairer. Unfortunately the anti-accountability crowd has finally gotten its way and it is our students who will suffer.”
Giving local school systems more latitude to design their own assessments sounds good in theory, and educators often admonish the media and others against comparing scores in one district with those elsewhere. Perhaps so, but ultimately, students in Rowan and North Carolina aren’t just being ranked against themselves. They’re going to be compared to ó and competing with ó students from across the country and around the world. It’s hard to see how this change in writing assessments will help them measure up.

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