New assessment methods bring some challenges to Durham schools

Jan. 03, 2013 @ 05:44 PM


 In recent years, Durham Public Schools vowed to cut back on the number of tests used to assess their students.

But mandates from North Carolina’s state government make that a tough promise to keep.

On Thursday, DPS Superintendent Eric Becoats held a media briefing to discuss the impending “Common Exams,” as well as other state-mandated issues such as a graduation requirement for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and plans to assign letter grades to schools.

The new exams, scheduled to be given only to middle and high school students this spring, are meant primarily to gauge a teacher’s effectiveness for annual evaluations. Results will be used to rate a teacher as highly effective, effective or in need of improvement.

“We specifically wanted, as a district, to decrease tests,” Becoats said. “We took efforts, but because of this mandate, the number of tests will increase.”

The exams will cost at least $120,000 to administer this year. That expense includes printing exams and answer documents, as well as paying proctors and coordinators.

The exams given in grades 6-12 will cover topics ranging from social studies and science to physics, English language arts, pre-calculus and history. Starting in 2014, elementary school students in grades 3-5 can expect Common Exams for health education and physical education.

Does that mean a higher cost for giving exams as elementary schools are phased in?

“It could be more,” Becoats said. “I’m not going to say it will be, but it could be.”

The Common Exams are supposed to align with the new Common Core standards implemented this school year. However, DPS hasn’t seen the tests yet, Becoats said, and can’t judge.

“That verdict is still out as to their alignment,” he said.

As of Dec. 20, about 1,300 high school students in Durham had been trained in lifesaving techniques. The ongoing effort, required by the state for students beginning with the class that graduates in 2015, has been a collaboration of DPS, Durham County, the City of Durham and Duke University Medical Center.

“This was truly a partnership effort,” Becoats said.

Over the summer, the state General Assembly passed legislation calling for public schools to be assessed with letter grades – A, B, C, D or F.

For the past 15 years, the state assessed schools with an accountability model based on student proficiency and academic growth in a variety of subjects. Schools that fell below 50 percent proficiency and failed to meet growth expectations qualified as “low performing.” In 2012, for the first time, DPS boasted no low performing schools.

The new assessment method would assign point values to a school based on criteria that have not yet been determined, Becoats said. A school that failed to earn at least 60 points would get an F.

Uncertainty about the criteria and what, if any, consequences might befall a failing school, yields some concern for Becoats and other North Carolina superintendents.

“Superintendents across the state have strongly urged the Department of Public Instruction to work with the General Assembly to delay the implementation of the grades,” Becoats said. “We’re basically saying this year we have a new assessment model as a result of Common Core and we’re still awaiting a decision in relationship to that as to whether school performance grades will be part of the accountability model.”

June Atkinson, the state schools superintendent, doesn’t hold out much hope for a delay.

“I don’t believe the General Assembly will be very receptive to that idea,” she said.

School performance would be part of the model that DPI plans to present to the General Assembly later this month, she said.

For high schools, those letter grades would be based on graduation rates, end-of-grade test proficiency and the percentage of students who complete Algebra II. Those are the criteria proposed by the state Board of Education two years ago, Atkinson said.

Elementary schools would earn grades based on end-of-grade results in reading and mathematics, while middle schools are graded based on science test results from 5th and 8th grades, as well as reading and math in all three, Atkinson said.

If a school earns an F under the new measures – comparable to qualifying as “low performing” under the most recent method – DPI would work with the district and the school for at least three years to seek improvement, she said.

“We try to customize our support based on the problems in that school,” Atkinson said.

In other DPS news from the briefing:

-- Rogers-Herr Middle School, 911 W. Cornwallis Rd., hosts a Fifth-Grade Parent Night on Monday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. for parents who want to learn about making the transition to middle school.

-- Southern School of Energy and Sustainability, 800 Clayton Rd., hosts a magnet school information fair on Saturday, Jan. 12, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for families seeking information about elementary, middle and high school magnet offerings.

-- DPS presents a State of Our Schools update Jan. 23, at 5 p.m. in the Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St.

-- The district offers Parent Common Core Information Nights for middle school parents Jan. 28 at Brogden Middle School, 1001 Leon St., and elementary parents at the DPS staff development center, 2107 Hillandale Rd., Jan. 29. Both events are from 6 to 7 p.m.

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