The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gave states a chance to cut back on their reliance on standardized testing as the main way to evaluate schools. But North Carolina will remain tied to testing as its main evaluation tool. This is an opportunity missed – to come up with innovative ways to measure school progress and thus the progress of students.
Teachers, school administrators and for that matter, parents, have complained for years that the emphasis on testing forces teachers to “teach to the test” for the sake of the kids – who need to pass to advance – and of schools, which are evaluated in terms of their effectiveness based on their test scores. That affects teachers as well, who also are judged based on the performances of their students.
But much is not factored in when it comes to the numbers. What about that teacher in a school with a high number of low-income students from troubled homes? Some progress by those students might speak to a teacher’s tremendous work, though those students’ scores might still be lagging when measured against a statewide or national standards.
There is just a lot, in other words, that tests don’t reveal.
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But when the State Board of Education approves a plan for evaluation, it will not include much innovation. Bobbie Cavnar, the teacher adviser to the board, said, “What we’re getting is more of the same, the same thing we’ve been doing for decades. We’re doubling down on test scores. This is our chance to be innovative.”
But Bill Cobey, the Republican chairman of the state board, rightly notes the board was held back by the legislature’s limits on what the state can do because Republican lawmakers want to keep their “grading system” for schools, giving each an A, B, C, D or F. This is a bad, bad system, because it’s mostly based on the percentage of students in a school who pass state exams. Republicans say, see, here, it helps parents judge schools. Critics – who are right – say it guarantees high-poverty schools, where test scores tend to be lower, a stigma of a low grade they’ll not be able to overcome. It also hurts those schools’ chances to get better, because some teachers will be reluctant to go to those schools knowing the challenges they’ll face and the likelihood that those schools will be underfunded.
Cobey and his board are working on changing the system, to their credit. But GOP leaders on Jones Street continue to make public schools a political target and to use the example of schools with bad grades as a reason to create more charters and to invest even more public money in private school vouchers. It’s a disgraceful use of the conventional public schools to which most North Carolinians send their children as political fodder to the detriment of public education.
State Superintendent Mark Johnson, who seems to take his orders from GOP chiefs in the legislature and has tensions with the state board, downplayed the issue, which is unfortunate.
Lawmakers are sticking with a grading system that doesn’t work, for all the wrong reasons. But as long as their cynical view of public schools prevails in terms of governance, that doesn’t seem to trouble them.