North Carolina has won federal approval to change the way it tests the reading and math skills of elementary and middle school students.
North Carolina’s plan is to replace the single high-stakes test given at the end of the school year with shorter and more personalized but more frequent tests throughout the year. If the five-year pilot goes on schedule, the new testing system will go statewide in the 2023-24 school year.
“This pilot program gives states that are willing to try a new approach an opportunity to assess student achievement without sacrificing rigor or skirting accountability,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a news release last week announcing approval of North Carolina’s request. “I look forward to seeing the impact this study will have on student outcomes.”
North Carolina needed DeVos’ approval because the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to administer standardized tests to students.
Currently, students in grades three through eight take state standardized tests in reading and math at the end of the school year. The 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, the News & Observer previously reported.
The new North Carolina Personalized Assessment Tool (NCPAT) will have students in grades 3-8 take three tests during the school year in reading and three tests in math. The first test will be on what was taught up to that point. The second test will cover what’s been taught since the first test.
The final test will be given at the end of the school year and include questions on both what students have learned since the second test and what they were taught earlier in the year.
State education officials say the new end-of-year test will be personalized, with different questions used based on how students did on the first two assessments. The final test will take up to two hours compared to the three-hour end-of-grade exams now used.
“The goal is to provide more information to teachers and parents that can improve their student learning and do that by testing as little as possible but effectively,” Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at the state Department of Public Instruction, said in an interview.
The new tests share some similarities with an existing program called N.C. Check-Ins, in which students are tested three times in a subject to give teachers information they can use during he year. Howard said 60 percent of the state’s school districts use the Check-Ins to supplement the end-of-grade tests.
But Howard said there are differences between the Check-Ins and the new tests.
Howard said that the 2019-20 school year will be a planning year for the new tests. They’ll then look for schools to volunteer for the pilot starting in the 2020-21 school year.
While many things still need to be worked out, Howard said the plan is for all elementary and middle schools to use the new tests in place of the end-of-grade exams starting in the 2023-24 school year.
Tia Gilliam-Wilson, an elementary school teacher in the Alamance-Burlington School System, said the new program looks to be better than the current testing system. She said the similarities to the N.C. Check-Ins make it attractive to educators,
“Teachers are able to use the data to drive their instruction,” said Gilliam-Wilson, who also works with N.C. Families For School Testing Reform.
The new pilot comes at a time when state lawmakers are looking at changing the way students are tested.
A testing reduction bill passed by the House was rejected by the Senate. Lawmakers are trying to work out a compromise.
One of the concerns raised by senators is how the House wants to replace the end-of-grade exams with the Check-Ins.
The N.C. Chamber of Commerce has also raised concerns about the House’s plan. They’ve questioned whether the Check-Ins would provide enough information for assessing student performance at the end of the school year.
Howard says one of the differences with the Check-Ins is that the new tests will meet federal standards for assessing student achievement.
Gary Salamido, chief operating officer and acting president of the NC Chamber, said that policymakers should closely monitor the new pilot to see if it produces results comparable across the state.
“We support efforts to comprehensively study new types of tests before making major changes to our assessment program,” Salamido said in a statement. “We also urge legislators and the State Board of Education to use this pilot as an opportunity to engage parents, educators and the business community on how to create a testing program that is high quality and aligned with the standards.”