Wake County schools want state permission to drop the N.C. Final Exams required in dozens of courses from elementary to high school.
In a written request to the State Board of Education seeking a waiver from the exams, the district mentioned lost instructional time, difficult logistics, and an assertion that tests do not match what students are learning in class.
“Over the past two years, teachers and principals have also reported a lack of comfort around the absence of performance standards on NCFE exams, the over-reliance on multiple-choice test questions on those tests, as well as significant concerns regarding the alignment to the curriculum,” the district wrote in its application.
The State Board has been granting these waivers. The state Department of Public Instruction recommended freeing Wake from the requirement, and no board member Wednesday spoke about denying the request.
But the request from the state’s largest district raised more questions about the tests from State Board members already anxious about them.
“Why do we have North Carolina Final Exams?” asked Board Chairman Bill Cobey. “Maybe I’m asking a question I shouldn’t ask.”
The Final Exams are state-produced, but they are different from the end-of-grade and end-of-course tests.
The Final Exams are given in most courses that don’t have an end-of-grade or end-of-course test, such as World History, Physical Science and Exploring Agriculture Science.
The tests are set to be used as a factor in a new teacher evaluation system the state will use beginning this fall under agreements with the federal government. The test results also count for at least 20 percent of students’ final grades.
Board member Olivia Oxendine, who for months has been questioning how sturdy the student-test factor in the evaluations can be if districts continue to ask for waivers, said Wake’s application underscored the need for a review.
“We need to study this policy,” she said.
If Wake dumps the tests, the number of students statewide no longer required to take them would more than double. And State Board members said Wake could be a tipping point for more large districts to ask to drop them.
The Final Exams have been an irritant to teachers, principals and superintendents since they were implemented about three years ago. State Department of Public Instruction staff has had to beat back questions from around the state about whether the tests match what students are asked to learn.
Those classroom-level observations persist.
“The state final exams don’t really match up with the kinds of things we teach in our classes,” said Larry Nilles, head of the Wake chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators. Some tests have “imbalances” he said, where one learning goal is the focus of a disproportionate number of questions.
The tests are also difficult to schedule because they come with rules on who can give them, Nilles said. For example, English teachers cannot administer English tests to students enrolled in a level of English he or she teaches. He called it “a logistical nightmare.”
Letting Wake dump the exams will have consequences for the state and for the district’s teachers themselves.
Wake supplies a lot of data, and its students do well on the tests compared with the rest of the state. That means that when the state takes a broad look at teachers “our inference about what is average will be diminished,” said Tom Tomberlin, director of district human resources support at the state Department of Public Instruction.
Teachers who have three years worth of student test data will have student growth factored into their evaluations starting this fall.
If the state lets Wake drop the tests, that means that schoolwide scores from the remaining standardized tests – the EOGs and EOC – will be substituted for the Final Exam results in the evaluations.
Evaluation ratings connected to student test results are “does not meet expected growth,” “meets expected growth,” and “exceeds expected growth.”
Using the Final Exam results for Wake in 2013-14, 9.4 percent of teachers are in the lower category, 63 percent of teachers are in the middle, and 27.3 percent are at the top, Tomberlin said.
Substituting the schoolwide EOCs and EOGs squeezes teachers to the extremes: 17.7 percent would not meet growth, 45 percent would meet growth, and 37 percent would exceed growth.
Tomberlin said the district understands the consequences.
Nilles said high school teachers were surveyed twice about the wavier and were told that some teachers may be pushed out of the “met growth” category and into the lower level.
Most still thought making the switch is worth it, he said.