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N.C. rightly resists lowering bar on tests

For a couple of years now, North Carolina has been playing an unfortunate game of follow the leader with Florida on education issues. Republican lawmakers swept through changes in 2012 under House leader Phil Berger’s deceptively named Excellence in Public Schools Act, which puts in place one mediocre or failed Florida initiative after another.

But thankfully, the N.C. board of education had the good sense to reject a strategy that Florida adopted after the state’s education reforms haven’t so far panned out: lowering the passing bar on state tests to give the appearance of success.

On Thursday, the N.C. board contemplated that option after members learned that tougher Common Core standards in math and English, and new state standards in other subjects last year resulted in lower test scores. New state tests had been matched to the tougher standards.

The board had asked the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to develop options to make it easier for students to pass the tests, and hold back on the tougher scoring. But Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at DPI, rightly called that strategy the deceit it is. She said holding back on the tougher scoring would mean some students would be identified as proficient in a topic when they really aren’t. And she pointed out the critical flaw in that approach – some students would miss out on getting the help they need to improve.

Board member John Tate, from Charlotte, was spot-on in his assessment of lowering the bar. He called it “the inverse of grade inflation.” Schools need to prepare students for the demands of the job market, he said. “For me, this is the price that is paid to lift those standards.”

Unfortunately, too many policymakers treat testing as an end unto itself, not a tool to reach a goal. That kind of thinking has helped spawn a proliferation of high-stakes tests. Assessments are most useful in helping students gain the knowledge and skills to be competitive and proficient. Tests perform their most valuable function in helping spot gaps in learning and finding ways to close those gaps.

Too often, though, tests are used simply to label students and schools as either good or bad – labels that are not only counter-productive to improving learning but often are misleading because they don’t capture how much progress a student or school had made. And when not used in conjunction with other learning assessments, high-stakes tests gain outsized importance in evaluating learning.

Also important is providing educators the resources to help improve deficiencies in students’ learning. Sadly, N.C. lawmakers continue to make it more difficult for teachers – reducing spending on K-12 education by millions, giving teachers no pay raises, increasing class sizes and eliminating teacher assistants. This is no way to give N.C. students the excellent public schools they need and deserve.

But we’re glad N.C. education leaders resisted the temptation to institute the sham of progress that Florida and too many other states have established to hide rather than fix the problems of educating our state’s children. Lower test scores will inevitably follow higher standards in the short run. But our students and our communities will reap the benefits of the higher standards in the long run.

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