Wake County reduces number of student tests

Amid a growing national backlash against testing, Wake County students will get some relief this fall as the state’s largest school district cuts back on the number of locally required exams.

Wake has been giving three locally required tests each school year in subjects such as language arts, math and science, those used to help prepare students for the state’s end-of-grade and end-of-course exams. But Wake will now only require one exam each in those subjects starting in the 2015-16 school year.

“We’re trying to strike a balance with reducing the district-level assessments that are required, to provide greater flexibility at the school level,” Cathy Moore, Wake’s deputy superintendent of school performance, told school board members last week.

For the past several years, Wake has contracted to offer up to three CASE21 benchmark tests each school year in grades 2 through 8 in reading and math; grades 5 and 8 in science; and biology, Math I and English II in high school. The assessments, provided by an outside vendor, are between 30 and 70 questions long.

Moore said the contract costs Wake close to $1 million annually.

But in the new $555,386 contract the school board will vote on Tuesday, Wake will only pay for one mid-year CASE21 test in individual subjects. She said the one test, typically given in January, will still offer teachers enough information in time to make adjustments in classroom instruction.

At the same time that Wake is cutting back on CASE21 tests, teachers will be given sample questions they can use if they want to offer their own assessments.

“We’re also being responsive to the concerns about what is managed at the district level and what is managed at the school level,” Moore said.

Wake’s change is occurring at a time when groups in North Carolina and nationally have debated whether standardized testing has gotten out of hand. The state’s current end-of-year standardized tests have been criticized as useless for teachers who want to use results to guide lessons, too stressful for students and parents, and developmentally inappropriate for younger children who cannot sit and focus for hours at a time.

Earlier this month, the state Board of Education agreed to pilot a system of using shorter but more frequent tests. About 9,000 students in fifth and sixth grades statewide will be chosen to take three shorter tests during the 2015-16 school year – along with shorter end-of-grade tests at the end of the year.

If successful, the program could be used statewide in the 2016-17 school year.

Moore told school board members that Wake didn’t volunteer to join the pilot because students would still be required to take the end-of-year exams.

“We weren’t anxious to sign up for continuing what we have to do and adding to it,” she said.

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui