Politics & Government

Testing in NC schools could get less stressful. Changes in exam rules are coming.

Some of North Carolina’s high-stakes standardized student tests are about to get shorter, and schools may not have to scramble looking for people to proctor the exams anymore.

State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson has announced several changes that the state Department of Public Instruction will make for testing this school year that he says should reduce the amount of stress on students and teachers. Changes include state exams with fewer questions, allowing students to leave the exams sooner and easing rules requiring exam proctors.

“We will be working with local superintendents and state leaders to reform the system of over-testing,” Johnson said in a press release. “That way, we can give the teachers the time to do what they entered the profession to do: teach.”

Several people who have pushed to reduce testing — as well as the anxiety and labeling associated with it — said they need more details to know how significant Johnson’s plan will be.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, because it sounds like there will be some changes,” said Jen Bourne, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent working with a statewide group of families seeking testing reform. But she said it’s not clear whether Johnson plans to push the General Assembly to change such things as the Read To Achieve act, which puts heavy emphasis on testing third-grade reading skills, or school letter grades based on students’ scores.

“If we’re not going to talk about the harmful policy, it’s not clear how much is going to change,” Bourne said.

Reducing testing is a laudable goal, according to Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. But he said the question is how Johnson will accomplish that objective.

“I think for the most part that backing away from high-stakes test-based accountability is a good thing,” Nordstrom said. “The question is what does it get replaced with so we’re not failing vulnerable students around the state.”

Each year, students take a battery of local and state exams. This includes state mandated exams in reading, math and science.

The “high stakes” label comes from all the things that ride on students’ test scores. In North Carolina, that includes promotion to third grade, principal pay, teacher bonuses and letter grades that label each public school as high- or low-performing. All of those “stakes” are mandated by the General Assembly.

The result, as the Charlotte Observer previously reported, are elaborate rules designed to prevent cheating and eliminate distractions.

“The key question is what are we going to do to reduce the stakes?” said Pamela Grundy, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent and longtime advocate for less testing.

But some changes are going into effect this school year.

The number of questions on the state end-of-grade math exams, science end-of-grade exams and biology end-of-course exams are being reduced, according to Drew Elliot, a DPI spokesman. He said changes in the state’s language arts end-of-grade exams will begin in the 2019-20 school year.

The reduction in questions will shorten those exams. Currently, the exams are expected to last three hours with a maximum of four hours to finish them. Elliot said the exams will now take two hours with up to three hours allowed.

Students now are expected to stay at their desks and wait until the exam time is done for their classmates. But Elliot said that districts will be encouraged to develop local rules that could let students leave the room once they’re done. He said it would have to be done in an orderly way to not disrupt students still taking the tests.

Several critics of long, stressful exams, especially for elementary students, said shorter exams sound like a step in the right direction. But some wanted to know how many questions would be eliminated and how that will affect the reliability of scores in measuring students’ proficiency.

Drew Polly, a UNC Charlotte education professor who has worked with the state on designing math exams, said shorter exams tend to raise questions about validity — including among the U.S. Department of Education, which links some testing to federal funding.

Rules on how schools and individual teachers administer the tests are also being loosened.

Currently, teachers get mandatory training on the process each time they must give an exam. This leads to teachers sticking to scripted remarks on testing day so that impromptu comments aren’t construed as improper coaching, the Charlotte Observer previously reported.

But new rules will let teachers discuss test-taking strategies with students on the day of the test.

“Teachers can’t discuss the content of the test,” Elliot said. “But it didn’t make sense for them to not discuss testing strategy.”

Another change could end the annual scramble to find thousand of volunteer proctors. Elliot said it will now be a local decision whether a district or charter school wants to have proctors.

Proctors keep an eye on faculty to make sure they’re not breaking rules. That job is important enough to merit its own 12-page guide from the state, the Charlotte Observer previously reported.

“Those rules have grown up over the years largely as responses to specific questions from districts,” Elliot said. “What we’ve heard is that it’s very hard to get proctors to come in and that there are other strategies you can use.

“We have to trust the local decision makers to know their districts.”

There’s a risk to not requiring proctors, according to Nordstrom of the N.C. Justice Center.

“There’s a huge danger that people will be tempted to cheat the system,” Nordstrom said. “We’ve seen that in many cities across the system.”

Grundy, the Charlotte advocate, agreed: “I don’t see how they can consider the results valid if there aren’t proctors.”

The changes come after Johnson contacted parents in November and offered them a chance to win $250 if they took an online survey about testing. Critics questioned offering money and said the survey was just a way for the Republican superintendent to promote his image among parents.

More than 42,000 parents responded to the survey. DPI said that 78 percent of parents said their children take too many tests and that 76 percent of teachers have said that students are being tested too much.

Instead of high-stakes tests, Johnson said that personalized learning technology can be used to allow teachers to get the information they need about students’ progress.

“We are just getting started reforming testing in North Carolina’s public schools,” Johnson said in the press release. “The changes I am announcing today will be a major step in reducing outdated testing methods to measure students’ progress, and the future is bright for North Carolina’s public schools.”

Carol Sawyer, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member who has long advocated for reducing the time devoted to testing and test prep, said she and others will be eagerly watching to see if that proves true.

“There’s not a lot here to grab onto,” she said, “as long as we’re still putting the higher stakes on these tests.”

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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.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.