By Ann Doss Helms, Charlotte Observer
Test time begins today for Charlotte-Mecklenburg's elementary and middle school students. And as with almost everything else, the economy will make it more challenging.
North Carolina's end-of-grade exams are designed to gauge whether students in grades 3-8 have mastered reading and math. They influence whether students advance to middle or high school.
The tests themselves aren't getting harder. But with summer school options shrinking because of budget cuts, thousands of students who score below grade level must now keep trying to pass before the school year ends June 10.
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In Mecklenburg and across the state, tight budgets are forcing cutbacks in summer school, which is usually an option for kids who need help getting ready for the next grade.
“We're struggling with the fact that summer school's been cut,” Superintendent Peter Gorman said.
This year the state is requiring all students who rate Level 2, or “below grade level,” to retake the tests in hopes of hitting grade level. Last year, 14,400 CMS students scored Level 2 in reading and 14,180 in math.
If students get the lowest rating, “well below grade level,” their parents can seek a retest. Failing test scores don't automatically mean students are held back; principals decide who moves up.
Scores for kids are just the beginning. They're also compiled to rate schools – and, increasingly, the effectiveness of individual teachers.
In the past, strong progress has meant teachers and principals get bonuses from the state and CMS. But CMS has sliced the bonuses out of its budget and state legislators are expected to do the same. N.C. Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter called the prospect of ABC bonuses in 2009 “quite doubtful.”
That's another blow for educators who have already taken an end-of-year pay cut and face layoffs at the end of this school year.
“It's not always about the money, but money does help,” said University Park Elementary Principal Janice Davidson, who took part in a CMS news conference on the tests.
While rewards for success are drying up, penalties for failure remain. Schools that repeatedly fall short of federal No Child Left Behind test-score goals can be forced to replace staff. Gorman also uses a lack of test-score progress to pick schools for his “strategic staffing” shakeups, in which principals and some teachers are replaced.
Despite the stress for educators, they've spent the last few weeks trying to rev their kids up for success. Most schools have held special tutoring and test-prep sessions, often culminating with parties and rallies.
Davidson, the University Park principal, says the message she tries to send is simple: “This is the time to show the world what you know.”
Test Time Q&A
Q. Who's taking what tests?
N.C. students in grades 3-8 take math and reading exams; those in grades 5 and 8 are also tested in science.
N.C. high school students take end-of-course exams when they finish 10 core classes; CMS begins giving second-semester exams May 26.
Q. How are the tests graded?
Students get a “scale score” that shows how much they've advanced from the previous year; parents will get a detailed report.
Those scores are broken into four categories. Students rated at or above grade level are considered passing. Those rated below or well below may need to retake tests, get extra help or be held back.
Q. What about South Carolina?
The state is rolling out a new testing program for grades 3-8. The tests cover reading, writing, math, science and social studies. The program is dubbed Palmetto Assessment of State Standards – PASS for short.
S.C. high school students also take end-of-course exams.
Details on N.C. testing, including sample test items: www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/testing
Details on S.C. testing: http://ed.sc.gov (click “PASS Test Information”).