Last week's decision to drop unpopular tests and teacher ratings created by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is part of a strategy to rebuild teacher morale and public support, one of the board's new leaders says.
"I think it's a win-win," said Vice Chair Mary McCray, elected to the CMS board in November. "We're really looking at repairing the trust and confidence from the community that we had lost."
But what does it mean for kids, teachers and parents?
This spring, CMS students won't face the blizzard of new tests that irked many parents and teachers last year. The value-added teacher ratings CMS rolled out in 2010-11 are going away, too. State versions of the tests and ratings will take their place in coming years.
Pam Grundy, one of the CMS parents who led the fight against the new tests and ratings last spring, said she's "happy that the kids and teachers will be spared this year. We'll carry on the fight in Raleigh."
CMS teachers are working to craft new ways to recognize excellence and help weaker teachers improve, though eventual ties to pay remain murky.
"You're asking questions that we don't have all the answers to yet," CMS Human Resources Chief Daniel Habrat said last week, when reporters peppered CMS officials with questions about state and CMS plans for new evaluations and teacher pay.
Big changes in exams
Elementary and middle school students will still take the state's end-of-grade math, reading and science tests. What's going away - for now - are the additional end-of-year tests CMS had created to cover all subjects in all grades.
Those included reading, math, social studies and science tests administered one child at a time in grades K-2. Teachers and parents rebelled at how much time the tests took from other classroom activities. Some said the test questions were poorly designed.
Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said last week he thinks the one-on-one testing of young children is a good concept that should return, because it helps teachers identify what they're learning.
In high school, the state has eliminated the 10th-grade writing exam and most of its end-of-course exams. Students will still take state exams when they complete Algebra I, English I and biology.
Starting this year, all North Carolina 10th-graders will take the PLAN test, and 11th-graders will take the ACT. Both are national exams designed to measure academic achievement and college/career readiness.
The CMS exams given last spring in all high school courses that didn't have state exams will be gone, even as the state works to develop its own tests for those subjects.
CMS is tossing out the complex "value-added" formula officials developed, unveiled and explained to teachers last year. It was designed to gauge how much each teacher contributed to students' gains on test scores, and the additional tests were created to ensure that all teachers would have ratings.
The state is rolling out its own value-added rating, starting with this year's principal and teacher evaluations.
"We are confident that it will be fair to teachers, principals and to students," Hattabaugh wrote in an email to all employees last week. "It will not be completely transparent because it belongs to a private company, SAS. We will not be able to reproduce or recalculate it because we won't have access to the calculation method."
CMS is working with teachers to craft additional measures for identifying success and helping weak teachers improve. Those include goals teachers design to measure what their students have learned and classroom observations that help teachers share tactics.
Six teachers told the school board this year's study groups have built their confidence in the system. Charlene Wolford, a special education teacher at Independence High, was on a group that identified classroom management - from good lesson plans to student behavior - as a crucial area to measure.
But she said the most exciting aspect is the chance for veteran teachers with strong skills to coach new teachers, who often struggle to keep their classes focused on learning.
Wolford also took part in a performance-pay study group last year, but she said this time she believes top officials are listening to teachers: "They brought us in, and they kind of turned us loose."
What about money?
By scrapping the 52 new tests CMS developed last year, the district will save about $300,000 on administering and grading those exams. Board members hope that will be helpful as they try to persuade county commissioners and taxpayers to spend another $25 million to $30 million on raises for CMS employees.
"Right now we just needed to be frugal," said McCray, who criticized the new CMS tests last year when she headed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. "That money from the testing, we needed to keep it at home."
CMS spent almost $2 million developing the additional tests last year before it was clear the state was going to follow a similar path. Board member Eric Davis said it was only after the state failed to get federal Race to the Top money and had to come up with a stronger plan that it committed to a testing and evaluation program similar to the one CMS had launched.
The state is learning from the CMS efforts, he and Hattabaugh say, and CMS can let the state take the lead.
The big question remains: Will new evaluations affect teacher pay in CMS or statewide? No one is sure whether that will happen, how it would work or where the money would come from.