Testing is a vital part of education, but its not teaching. Yet, with the addition of more than two dozen standardized tests this academic year, the number of tests administered to students in grades four through 12 is approaching 200 across our state.
This number raises some obvious questions. How many tests are too many? Are we in danger of turning our teachers into proctors? How do we hold standards high and measure the right things in the right way at the right time?
Superintendents of several of the states largest public school districts expressed these and other concerns to Gov. Pat McCrory during a recent meeting. A letter from 42 middle school teachers from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district warned that testing is increasingly being equated with learning.
After hearing these apprehensions and reviewing some preliminary data, McCrory asked me to review the states testing as well as the overall effectiveness of the $400 million Race to the Top grant. Clearly, there are good things happening in our state as a result of Race to the Top, but we need to make sure we are maximizing this historic investment in our states students.
The governor made it clear we will hold North Carolina students and teachers to high, measureable, globally competitive standards. But after listening to educators, he wants to determine whether testing is controlling the curriculum. The superintendents said that testing requirements were leaving teachers little time for instruction. For example, the new Measure of Student Learning tests must be graded by two teachers and supervised by a third instructor. Thats a lot of time and talent taken away from classroom instruction.
Administering and compiling excessive test results also robs teachers of using and developing their creativity, which could sap them of their motivation. My fear is that some of our best teachers may leave the profession, and there is evidence that this is happening at increasingly alarming rates.
We see high standards and testing as fundamental to educating students who can compete in the global economy. But tests must have a clear purpose, be well designed and measure the outcomes that matter most. As a former teacher, I think we must take a fewer and deeper approach; fewer tests that adhere to deeper standards that tell us how our students learn and that support how our teachers teach.
Finland has an education system that uses fewer, deeper and more informative tests, and it consistently ranks in the top three in international tests that measure student proficiency in reading, mathematics and science. In 2009, Finnish students as a whole had a PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) mean score of 536 in reading, 541 in mathematics and 554 in science. On those same tests, American students scored 500, 487 and 502 respectively. PISA 2012 results are expected to be released later this year.
Finland accomplished these impressive outcomes without mandatory tests. Tests administered in Finland are used as feedback for educators and not used for ranking schools, students or teachers.
Im not advocating the Finnish system for North Carolina, but Finland reminds us that testing must return to being a relevant, classroom-based tool for educators and not a means unto itself. We must ensure that teachers are fulfilling their primary role in our education system: imparting knowledge to individual students.
Above all, we must make sure tests are not robbing teachers of the time they need to develop meaningful relationships with parents and students. These relationships can often be the difference between a students success or failure.
A generation ago, Gov. Jim Hunt was at the national forefront of bringing rigorous and standardized exams into North Carolina classrooms to ensure that all of our states students were prepared to lead a life of honor, prosperity and service. McCrory is building on that trailblazing tradition by ensuring that teachers are empowered by testing and are not being shackled by endless exams.
Our shared goal in North Carolina is not just to be the education leader in the Southeast or in the nation, but in the entire world; the students of North Carolina deserve nothing less.
Eric Guckian, senior education adviser to Gov. Pat McCrory, has led Teach for America in North Carolina and has taught in public schools in North Carolina and New York.