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New N.C. exams test teachers – in more ways than one

More Information

  • What’s tested?

    These subjects have N.C. exams this year. Those in bold are considered end-of-grade or end-of-course tests, which will be used to grade schools. The rest are used only to calculate teacher ratings.

    Elementary

    •  Language arts and math: Grades 3-5.

    •  Science: Grade 5, plus fourth-grade students whose science teachers who don’t teach language arts or math.

    • Social studies: Grades 4-5, only if their social studies teachers don’t teach other tested subjects.

    Middle

    •  Language arts and math: Grades 6-8.

    •  Science: Grade 8, plus sixth- and seventh-grade students whose science teachers who don’t teach language arts or math.

    • Social studies: Grades 6-8, only if their social studies teachers don’t teach language arts or math.

    High

    • Language arts: Levels I-IV (only level II is an end-of-course exam).

    • Math: Algebra I and II, integrated math III, pre-calculus, advanced functions and modeling, geometry.

    • Science: Biology, earth environmental science, physics, chemistry, physical science.

    • Social studies: World history, U.S. history, civics/economics.

    • Career-tech: CTE exams for students with a career/vocational concentration.


  • More information

    Learn more

    • N.C. testing information: www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability

    • CMS testing guide for parents: http://obsyourschools.blogspot.com/

    • SAS value-added rating system: www.sas.com/govedu/edu/k12/evaas



Students across North Carolina are taking a raft of new state exams, but their teachers are the ones being graded.

It’s a temporary situation as the state moves toward national academic standards, more sophisticated testing and teacher ratings based on student performance. Even those who support the goals say the transition is creating headaches for educators and confusion for families.

For instance: In addition to multiple-choice questions that can be quickly graded by computer, the new exams feature short-answer and essay questions. Teachers are responsible for scoring those items at their school.

The approach varies from district to district. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, two teachers score each answer – the one who taught the student and another teacher from the same school. They must do that in addition to their regular work. For high school teachers, that comes on top of creating and grading their own exams for the same subject.

There’s no extra pay. The state didn’t provide money for scoring, and CMS officials say the cost – $875,000 to $1 million that would have to be squeezed from the local budget – is prohibitive.

The results from teacher-graded items, along with the computer-graded part of the test, will be shipped to a private software company in Cary, which will use a secret formula to calculate “value-added” ratings of how much each teacher helped students advance.

That rating will be part of teachers’ job evaluations, and teachers rated ineffective for three consecutive years can face dismissal.

However, the CMS students taking the tests this year have nothing to lose or gain. Because the tests are new, CMS isn’t counting the results toward student grades this year. Next year they’re expected to count for 25 percent of the grade.

“There are so many ways that this is unfair, unprofessional and in some ways unethical,” says East Mecklenburg High history teacher Larry Bosc. “I’ve been in education a long time, and I haven’t heard anything like this.”

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison and Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes agree the system, at least this year, is flawed, raising doubts about the validity of the results.

Both say it would be better to have independent scoring, paid for by the state, than to have teachers grading tests that will shape their own evaluations. And Barnes agrees that having nothing at stake for students could skew results.

“Some kids I do think will blow off the test,” Barnes said. “I’m hoping that’s not widespread.”

The biggest concern is that the quest to generate data on teachers is squeezing out time for them to teach.

“We have to be able to say when have we crossed the line into too much testing. I think we’re getting very, very, very, very close to that point,” Barnes said. “If we haven’t already reached it.”

Trends converge

Across the country, schools are adopting Common Core academic standards and tests that hold students to higher standards, reflecting the more complex thinking and problem-solving required by the work force. The multiple-choice bubble-in tests that North Carolina and many other states have relied on have little connection to skills that help young adults succeed in college or careers, many say.

Meanwhile, North Carolina has also joined a parade of states using student test scores to rate teachers. Since the ultimate goal is student achievement, the thinking goes, teachers should be held accountable for how much their kids learn. Formulas like the one used by SAS Institute to calculate ratings for CMS are designed to adjust for other factors that influence performance, giving a picture of how much a teacher contributed to the student’s progress.

The value-added ratings will constitute one of six standards on N.C. teacher evaluations. Others include content knowledge, leadership and respect for student diversity.

Bosc said it’s outrageous that teachers can be penalized for results on a test that students may not even take seriously. “Some students will do nothing if the test doesn’t count for their grade,” he said.

Barnes agrees that this year’s results may be questionable, but he noted that consequences only kick in if there are two more bad years. And there are five other categories to balance out the test-score numbers, he said.

Too new to count

Normally, state exams count for 25 percent of a student’s grade. Scores also influence decisions about whether to promote students to the next grade or admit them to magnet schools. That’s expected to be the case again in 2014.

But this year, the state must set new norms that determine who passes and who fails. Those results won’t be ready until October – too late to shape decisions about August placement. The delay also means students who fail won’t get a second try, as they have in recent years. That makes it likely that school pass rates will drop.

Even without a state decision on the cutoff for passing, school districts had the option of using raw scores for classroom grades. But CMS decided that would be unfair to students, given all the unknowns.

In addition to the state exams – some of which are totally new and some of which are new versions of previously-tested subjects – high school students will take their teacher’s final exam. Students in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses may also take exams created by those organizations.

Drop it or fix it?

MecklenburgACTS, a local advocacy group that has labeled the changes “testing madness,” got almost 800 signatures on an online petition calling for a moratorium on introducing new state tests and using them for teacher ratings. However, the moratorium bill failed to get out of committee.

Morrison and Barnes say the answer isn’t to scrap the system but to improve it.

“I welcome tests,” Morrison said. “I think accountability is critical.”

Barnes said educators and policymakers across the state need to figure out what it takes to create a strong, meaningful testing system – and be willing to pay for it, rather than asking teachers to take on unpaid work. As things stand now, teachers will have to keep scoring the exams in coming years, but Barnes said local officials will urge the state Department of Public Instruction to create a better method.

“We need them to be able to focus on teaching kids,” he said, “not scoring exams.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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