New think tank explores K-3 assessment options

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 06:35 PM

One day, June Atkinson hopes, end-of-course tests and letter grades “will be a 20th-century artifact.”

But such assessments are what we must work with now, the superintendent of North Carolina’s schools acknowledged Friday morning.

About 20 scholars and scientists gathered in Rubenstein Hall on Duke University’s West Campus to hear Atkinson speak.

The group, comprised of bright minds from Duke, University of North Carolina, N.C. State University, Western Carolina University, East Carolina University, Meredith College and Elizabeth City State University, is expected to spend the next six months devising the basics of a new system for assessing children from kindergarten to third grade.

Atkinson recalled how a college adviser took into account her origins in rural Virginia and proclaimed that she probably wouldn’t make very good grades. From then on, “I made it a point to prove him wrong,” she said.

But other young people might be discouraged by such a declaration.

“We have to make sure that the assessments we use take children to a better place, not hold them back,” she said.

John Pruett, co-chair of the think tank and an administrator with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, told the group not to look for easy answers to the problem they’re tackling.

“There’s always an easy answer to a problem, but easy answers often cause difficulties down the road,” he said.

He wants the group to develop an assessment instrument that helps children, informs the state about how young students are doing, but doesn’t create yet another “high-stakes” test or hinder teachers trying to do their jobs.

“That’s not an easy task,” Pruett said. “But that’s what we’re charged with.”

The think tank is one of several moving parts in a process supported by a $70 million federal Race to the Top grant awarded to the state. Building this new K-3 assessment also will involve a special task force of educators and parents, development work groups to create the assessment and “scaling-up work groups” that deal with how to apply assessments on a state, regional and district level.

The group’s written recommendations are expected to be presented to the state Board of Education this summer. If all goes well, the new assessment should be implemented statewide in fall 2015.

Right now, Pruett said, the state’s 115 public school districts all have their own methods of assessing early education. “We don’t think that’s necessarily positive,” he said.

Coming up with the foundation for a more unified assessment will be challenging, he said. He wants to make sure that this assessment covers not just traditional domains such as reading and math, but also physical well being, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, language development, pattern recognition and recall.

“We know if we’re not successful in that task, ” Pruett said, “we’ll create something that won’t be helpful, might be harmful, or won’t be used at all.”

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