State Board of Education adopts tougher testing standards

lbonner@newsobserver.comOctober 3, 2013 

The State Board of Education adopted passing scores for standardized tests Thursday after toying with the idea of lowering the bar so more students would pass.

The board unanimously voted for scoring standards that mean failure rates of greater than 50 percent in most of the reading, math and science tests students took last spring.

The state gives end-of-grade tests in English/language arts and math to elementary and middle school students beginning in third grade, science tests in fifth and eighth grades, and biology, math and English tests in high school.

The high school English end-of-course test and the eighth-grade science test are the only tests that more than half the students passed. Student scores will be sent to parents and scores for individual schools will be released in November. They won’t be factored into teacher evaluations or be part of the new system of labeling schools A-F.

Schools statewide started using new Common Core standards in math and English/language arts, and new state standards in other subjects in the last school year. New tests matched the tougher standards. Standardized test scores drop each time a new test is introduced or the curriculum changes, state officials said.

Board members learned about the low scores last month and asked the state Department of Public Instruction to come up with options for phasing in the scoring standards to soften the blow. They were worried that the low scores would further wound teacher morale, provide fuel to critics of public schools, and hurt business recruitment in counties desperate for jobs.

Alternative scoring schemes that Department of Public Instruction staff worked up would have increased passing rates anywhere from 7 percentage points to 24 percentage points, depending on the test and the scoring method. In the end, the board opted to go with the tougher scoring standards, as DPI staff suggested.

Holding back on the tougher scoring would mean some students would be identified as proficient in a topic when they really aren’t, said Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at DPI. That could mean students missing out on help they need to improve, she said.

Board member John Tate endorsed the tougher scoring, calling it “the inverse of grade inflation.”

Schools need to prepare students for the demands of the job market, he said. “For me, this is the price that is paid to lift those standards and the level of rigor that exists,” he said.

Some board members said they’d feel better about the scores if they knew that DPI was going to offer teachers and principals help improving student performance.

“That is very important to me,” board member Olivia Oxendine said, “that we have some sense of where we’re going next.”

Ellen Forte, an assessment expert in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that many other states in the next two years are going to be faced with test-score decisions similar to North Carolina’s that may come with the challenge of explaining lower scores to the public.

New York and Kentucky saw scores drop when they started using new standards and tests.

“North Carolina and a number of the states have had the courage to raise their expectations” of what students do and need to know, Forte said. “They should not be punished for that.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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