Educators question demise of state tests

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 27, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY ó A new state law that will eliminate four end-of-course exams not required by the federal government is getting mixed reviews.
State legislators tout the law, which would end state history, civics and economics, algebra II and physical science exams starting next school year, as a cost saving provision.
But some educators say ditching a standardized test could weaken accountability.
ěHigh school students generally take exams at the end of every class, whether itís a teacher-made exam or a state exam,î said Janet Jenkins, director of student assessment for Kannapolis City Schools. ěThat being said, if a student is going to take a final there is uniform accountability if the state gives the exam.î
Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, said heís ědisappointedî with the law.
ěIím really opposed to anything lessening the standards,î he said. ěI think itís good to see how we stack up to other school systems.î
Emerson, a former principal, said heís an advocate of statewide testing.
ěIíve always encouraged some type of standards throughout the state because if you donít, you will have some teacher teaching their pet interest,î he said.
Jenkins said although teachers are already responsible for teaching the state prescribed curriculum, standardized tests can provide another layer of accountability.
ěIf it holds teachers accountable to teaching the curriculum, Iím not sure itís a bad thing,î she said. ěThat way no matter what class youíre in, county youíre in, or school youíre in, students will be learning the same thing.î

Jenkins said the current standardized tests do put a lot of added pressure on teachers, which is one of the selling points legislators used to push the bill through.
ěThere was a tremendous amount of e-mails from the teaching community to relieve them from the stress,î N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, said. ěThere just was nothing convincing from the other side to maintain that expense and that stress on the teachers.î
N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Rowan, said that though some students thrive under pressure, others fold.
ěWeíre putting so much emphasis on one or two days and really missing not only learning the information but thinking about how to us it,î he said.
Brock said standardized tests arenít a ětrue, accurate gaugeî of student performance because the way students learn and retain material varies depending on factors outside of school.

Legislators also cited ěteaching to the testî as another concern that prompted the elimination of the exams.
ěIf we teach to a test weíre not teaching practical skills,î N.C. Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan, said. ěStudents also need to know about our society, we need to give teachers the flexibility to teach other things that are relevant.î
Brock agrees the current tests donít provide a practical assessment of what students learned.
ěWe are teaching them to learn the test, we arenít teaching them how to think,î he said. ěI think we need to teach kids how to think outside of the box and not just be lab rats who know how to go through door A or B.î
Jenkins said teachers likely wonít be doing anything differently when the tests are nixed.
ěYou hear a lot about teaching to the test, but if they are teaching the curriculum then they are teaching to the test whether itís teacher made or state made,î she said.

The new law calls for the State Board of Education and the state Department of Public Instruction to consider alternative assessment strategies for measuring academic performance of students and evaluating teachers.
Jenkins said no one is sure what the tests of the future will look like, but they are definitely going to be online, which means a larger scope of questions will likely be available.
ěThey are trying to develop tests that do a better job than the narrow scope of the multiple choice test,î she said.
Jenkins said tests could include more enhanced items rather than the typical multiple choice format.
ěThose kind of items do offer the opportunity for students to be in ëperformance modeí rather than ëpick the right answer mode,í î she said.
Emerson said heíd like to see the federal government adopt more standardized tests so that local districts can stay on par with school systems in other states.
Brock agrees that local districts should have the ability to make their own accountability standards.
ěI know we want to have standards so letís put that into the hands of the teacher,î he said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.