State rethinks new end-of-grade school tests

lbonner@newsobserver.comJuly 10, 2013 

Complaints about new tests in subjects from science to civics have the State Board of Education reconsidering how to use the results and who will write future exams.

This year, schools began giving students in grades four through 12 tests in areas such as science, history, physics and geometry – subjects that are not already tested by end-of-grade or end-of-course exams. These are not the high-stakes tests used to judge schools, but the state plans to use the results to help evaluate teachers. A swell of complaints from teachers that the test questions did not match what they taught in class has the state rethinking its plans.

But making changes won’t be easy. The promise that the state would have a way to evaluate teachers that includes a measure of student growth was a factor in getting out of the No Child Left Behind law. The state also promised in its winning application for a $400 million Race to the Top grant that the tests would be used to help evaluate teachers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a few weeks ago that the department would consider allowing states to delay using the test information for one year, to 2016-17. Angela Quick, deputy chief academic officer at the state Department of Public Instruction, said the agency will take Duncan up on the offer and ask for the federal waiver, and to treat this year as practice.

Getting permission from the department to change the Race to the Top contract may be harder, state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said Wednesday. The U.S. Education Department is watching Race to the Top grant winners closely and isn’t keen on letting states out of contract requirements, she said.

The difficulty teachers had matching instruction to the tests probably stems from the new Common Core standards that state schools adopted, said state board member Olivia Oxendine. It’s often difficult for teachers to fully understand complex standards and then adapt their lesson plans, she said. The problems point to the need for more professional development to help teachers interpret the new standards and design their lessons and classroom tests around them, she said.

“It could take a typical teacher up to a year to be confident with new standards,” said Oxendine, a former classroom teacher and principal who works at UNC Pembroke.

The state Department of Public Instruction will make a formal recommendation on the federal waiver and contract change next month, Atkinson said. A board vote is expected in September.

The complaints also have DPI and the board reconsidering who will write future tests. Eight hundred teachers helped make decisions about the tests, and teachers wrote most of the items.

Possible alternatives

The board could consider alternatives such as continuing to provide state tests but allow districts to develop or buy their own; requiring districts to develop their own test, or letting districts stop giving the tests altogether and use schoolwide growth information as a substitute for individual teacher scores in non-tested subjects.

If the state chooses an option the federal department doesn’t approve, school districts would be in jeopardy of losing their share of the Race to the Top grant, said chief academic officer Rebecca Garland. All the state’s school districts agreed to participate in the grant, and all together collected $166 million.

Most districts have already spent their money and would probably have to repay the federal government with local funds unless the legislature allowed them to use state money, Garland said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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