Politics & Government

The NC House wants to reduce student testing. That has some business leaders worried.

The business community is warning that North Carolina lawmakers may be moving too fast to overhaul the state’s testing program for public school students.

The state House voted 104-13 on Wednesday to pass a bill that would eliminate more than 20 state exams and change how students are tested in elementary, middle and high school. The bill now goes to the Senate, where approval would mean elimination of some exams starting as soon as this fall.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican, promoted Wednesday how switching from using several state-developed tests to a single national test like the ACT in high school will better allow North Carolina to compare itself with other states.

“We can actually compare with Mississippi or whoever versus our internal tests, which in essence it’s like scrimmaging basketball,” said Elmore, the architect of the House plan. “We’re constantly seeing how we’re doing, but we’re not going and looking to see how we’re doing compared to other teams.”

But the N.C. Chamber of Commerce says the changes should be carefully considered before they’re made.

“The NC Chamber supports efforts to ensure North Carolina’s testing programs are high quality and aligned with academic standards, as well as efforts to bring more transparency to the test selection and development process,” Gary Salamido, chief operating officer and acting president of the N.C. Chamber, said in a statement Tuesday.

“This legislation could be a potential start, but stakeholders need to have a broader discussion about the state’s existing testing program to find a solution that balances the amount of time spent testing with the benefits gained.”

The legislation comes after years of parents, students and educators complaining that there’s too much testing in schools. Some changes were made for the school year that ended in June, such as shortening the length of tests and not requiring proctors for exams.

Education leaders in the House combined elements of legislation separately passed by the House and Senate to reduce the number of tests.

The new version of Senate Bill 621 would:

Eliminate the N.C. Final Exams starting in the 2019-20 school year. These 20+ state tests are given to students of teachers who don’t have results from a state end-of-grade (EOG) test or state end-of-course (EOC) test that can be used to evaluate their performance.

Replace the state EOG exams given in grades 3-8 in reading, math and science with the N.C. Check-Ins, which are shorter exams given to students three times a year in each subject. The Check-Ins are currently voluntary but would become mandatory beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

Eliminate the four remaining state EOC exams for biology, English and math typically taken by high school students. They’d be replaced by the ACT now taken by all of the state’s high school juniors or by a “nationally recognized assessment of high school achievement and college readiness.” This change would go into effect in the 2020-21 school year.

Prohibit school districts from requiring students to do a high school graduation project. The project involves students researching and writing a paper on a topic that they’ve chosen and presenting the project to a panel. This would go into effect in the 2019-20 school year.

Require school districts to determine how many hours their students spend on local standardized tests. If it’s more than the time spent on state exams, they’d come up with a plan to reduce the amount of local testing. Districts would do the reports every two years during even-numbered years. The first report would be due in 2020.

Require the state Department of Public Instruction to review the third-grade reading EOG to determine whether it should be modified to better meet the needs of the Read To Achieve program. The state has spent more than $150 million since 2012 under Read To Achieve, but third-grade reading scores have worsened over time.

Much of the debate was over the replacement of the EOGs with the Check-Ins. The N.C. Chamber is questioning whether the Check-Ins will provide the information needed to know how well students are doing.

“Right now, there is not enough conclusive research on the effectiveness of using state-created benchmarking tests to replace EOG tests,” Salamido said.

Elmore said that the Check-ins will allow teachers to know how their students are doing in real time. He also said replacing the long EOG exam with shorter Check-Ins will make it easier for young students.

“It’s less stress on the kids (than) with the big massive test,” Elmore said. “It’s in littler chunks.”

Rep. Graig Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said he agreed the Check-Ins are better and more useful. But he said that parents may complain about why their children are being tested three times a year instead of just once in each subject.

Meyer also said that only having the ACT as a standardized test in high schools means having less data for evaluating the effectiveness of teachers.

“We all share the goal of trying to decrease the negative impact of testing,” said Meyer, who voted for the bill despite his concerns. “But we might need to come back at some point and work on those things.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.