Judge hears ideas on NC school tests

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Dissecting standardized test results is central to Superior Court Judge Howard Manning’s ongoing evaluation of the state’s constitutional obligation to provide public school students a sound basic education.

With a state-sanctioned group talking about changing or eliminating some tests, Manning brought education officials into court Wednesday to talk about testing and what the state Department of Public Instruction is doing to improve low-performing schools.

Manning’s reliance on end-of-grade and end-of-course test results clashes with the feeling among district superintendents and some teachers and parents that preparation for those big exams overtakes the classroom and drains too much time from instruction.

Manning said Wednesday that the state shouldn’t base its testing decisions on superintendents’ dislike for them.

Tests are essential in making sure educators are held accountable for student progress, Manning wrote in advance of the hearing.

“Exposure to public accountability for academic results is necessary and legitimate in order to protect the children’s right to obtain a sound basic education and keep the public informed on the progress of the public schools in their county,” he wrote in an order.

Manning is overseeing the long-running lawsuit over school quality know as the Leandro case. He holds periodic hearings on the state’s progress in boosting schools where many students are behind in reading and math.

A.L. Collins, vice chairman of the State Board of Education, described changes that a testing task force is considering, and assured Manning that there would still be plenty of data.

“We’re not talking about taking away any data,” Collins said. With the changes under consideration “we will have more data to slice and dice,” he said.

The task force is putting the finishing touches on a proposal that would get rid of the standardized end-of-course and end-of grade tests the state has used for years to see how much students have learned. It is preparing to send its recommendations to the State Board of Education for consideration.

End-of-grade tests in reading and math given to third- through eighth-graders would be replaced with four shorter tests given through the year.

One of the big complaints about the end-of-grade tests is that they’re given so late in the school year that classroom teachers can’t use the results to shape instruction, he said.

The task force anticipates that test results could still be used to determine how much students advance year by year. The challenge will be generating a number at the end of the year that would be comparable to an end-of-grade score, Collins said.

Twenty-three school districts are interested in running a pilot project on a new testing regimen, he said.

Under the proposal, the three high-school level end-of-course tests in math I, biology, and English II would be eliminated and replaced with a suite of national tests given in ninth, 10th and 11th grades in English/language arts, reading, math and science. The state already gives tests that nearly fit this description: the ACT and its precursors. The N.C. Final Exams given in courses that do not have a related end-of-course test would become optional.

The state Supreme Court in 1997 issued the first of a series of rulings in the case brought by low-wealth schools over the disparity of educational opportunities in the state. Despite years of state focus on low-performing schools, challenges persist. Manning noted that the 44 high schools that the state targeted for improvement in 2006 “are not any better off than they were.”

“Those are the ones we need to focus on,” Manning said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821;

Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner