Parents have been complaining at least since the 1990s about the proliferation of school testing, which they say limits classroom creativity and puts too much pressure on children. Now superintendents and education advocacy groups are formally joining the effort.
There is hope for a boost to their efforts from Washington, D.C., where Congress is working to reauthorize the federal education law No Child Left Behind. That law requires annual testing that some parents believe is excessive.
One option for the rewritten federal law would cut exam requirements significantly, by testing one grade in elementary, middle and high schools. Now, third- through eighth-graders are required to take two or three standardized tests each year.
Children take these tests at the end of the school year, which critics say is too late for teachers to help lagging students catch up.
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“These standardized tests are really used for purposes other than the welfare of the individual child,” said Pamela Grundy of Charlotte. Last year, Grundy and her son participated in a campaign designed to bring attention to what parents see as over-testing. Her son attended school on testing day but closed his exam booklet without answering any questions. Parents around the country have protested standardized tests by opting out.
Sentiments for reducing the testing load have reached the governor and lawmakers.
Gov. Pat McCrory has been talking for at least a year about schools requiring too many tests. McCrory’s office said he will have details on reducing tests “in the near future.”
Sen. Dan Soucek, co-chairman of a key education committee, said he’s heard from parents and teachers about the flaws in school testing. “There’s a strong concern that there needs to be less of it,” said Soucek, a Boone Republican.
Too much testing?
Meanwhile, the state superintendents association and the N.C. Educators Association have called for fewer required tests, and the Public School Forum, an education think tank in Raleigh, made “streamlining assessments” one of its top issues for this year.
Public School Forum President Keith Poston said parents are responsible for much of the increased scrutiny.
“It’s coming from people like me who have kids in school today and can’t understand what all the tests are for and how they all fit in,” he said.
A state task force on end-of-grade and end-of-course testing is contemplating far-reaching changes to the testing regimen. It is discussing options that would get rid of most of the high-stakes tests that have been used for about two decades to judge students, schools and districts.
A.L. Collins, chairman of the testing task force for the State Board of Education, said that although discussions remain preliminary, members are considering recommendations to drop the requirement that nearly all students in third through eighth grades take tests at the end of each school year.
One alternative for younger students would be requiring end-of-grade tests once in elementary school and once in middle school.
“Is there too much testing? I think the general opinion is there probably is,” said Collins, who is also the State Board of Education vice chairman. “How to fix it is another question altogether, because there’s a trade-off.”
Parents, the public, policymakers and the courts use test scores to evaluate how much students are learning and whether teachers and principals are doing a good job. Test results show whether students are at or above their grade level and show how schools and districts compare to one another.
In periodic court hearings on education quality, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning dissects reams of test data to determine whether the state is meeting its obligation to offer children a sound basic education.
This year, for the first time, public schools will receive letter grades from A to F – based largely on student test results.
Students in North Carolina will take 18 standardized tests from third grade to high school, all required by the state as part of an agreement with the federal government.
But testing starts with kindergartners, though assessments for the youngest children don’t consume the hours that they do older students. Districts assess the youngest students to find out what they know when they begin school and what they’ve learned after a year in the classroom.
Schools also give dozens of other tests, called N.C. Final Exams, in courses where tests are not required by federal law. The Final Exams are used to comply with conditions in a federal grant program known as Race to the Top. Forty-two of the state’s 115 districts have obtained waivers from the Final Exam requirement.
It’s time to take a detailed look at all the tests required and the time it takes to give them, said Anthony D. Jackson, superintendent of Nash-Rocky Mount schools, where testing starts within 10 days of school opening.
“In Nash-Rocky Mount, you can rarely go three or four weeks without some kind of assessment being given,” Jackson said.
Schools need to show that they’re providing a sound education, Jackson said, but state leaders need to examine the level of testing needed to accomplish that.
“Are there better ways to do this that are aligned with what’s developmentally appropriate for students?” he asked. “Is it right for first- and second-graders to spend the whole year preparing for assessments?”
Ilina Ewen said excessive testing and the days and weeks devoted to preparing for end-of-year exams have changed the culture of school. Ewen, who lives in Raleigh, arranged to have one of her sons opt out of last year’s tests. She moved another son to private school for fifth grade because he was getting bored.
Ewen, who is a member of the state board’s assessment task force, said the group is proposing fewer high-stakes final tests and a greater emphasis on assessments given during the school year, when teachers have time to address student weaknesses.
“I think we’re going back to what we used to think about schools,” she said. “Going back to learning and teaching instead of testing.”