In public schools across North Carolina, posters have been pulled off walls and bulletin boards covered up. Kindergarteners are staying off playgrounds and eating lunch in their classrooms. Teachers are anxiously watching what they say, wear and do.
Year-end testing days can feel like schools are on lockdown, teachers say. Elaborate rules designed to prevent cheating and eliminate distractions can fuel anxiety for teachers, students and parents.
"It's a very high stress situation, not only for the teachers but for the students as well," said Melissa Easley, a science teacher at Quail Hollow Middle School in Charlotte. "If we mess up, even by mistake, we could lose our license."
So much is riding on the state exams students are taking this week. Third-graders taking their first official reading test may be retained if they fail.
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"I have twin third-graders. One asked me, 'If you homeschool me, would that get me out of having to take these tests?" Brian Kissel posted in response to an Observer query on Facebook. "These tests are killing school for our kids."
Bonuses for principals and some teachers are based on student scores. Results are crunched into letter grades assigned to every district and charter school.
That's why the state has created a 226-page testing manual to ensure that more than 2,600 public schools provide fair and uniform testing. By the time those rules filter through district offices and school testing coordinators to the classrooms, there's a mind-boggling maze of mandates to follow.
On Thursday, state Superintendent Mark Johnson sent teachers a survey about testing and their concerns about the conditions it creates. He said he got more than 14,000 responses in the first few hours.
On social media, teachers say they've been warned against wearing shoes that clack and clothes that rustle. Anything that could provide help on testing must be removed or covered before exams — including, in some schools, bookshelves and posters of the alphabet.
"If the child doesn't know their alphabet by third grade, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that they're not gonna pass the test with or without that alphabet," one person quipped on Facebook.
Teachers from different districts disagree on whether kids are allowed drinks or snacks during testing. Nancy Carolan, North Carolina's testing chief, says drinks are allowed but food is not.
But Kara Gensor, a teacher at Wake County's Holly Ridge Middle School, says the latest edition of the manual doesn't mention food, which her district has interpreted as permission for schools to decide.
"This year we're allowing them food and snacks," she said. "The kids are sitting and munching away while they're taking tests."
Stick to the script
Teachers get mandatory training on the process each time they must give an exam.
"Of course it's a hassle. Teachers feel like, 'I'm not a moron,' " said Rupi Young, testing coordinator at West Mecklenburg High School. "But it creates an unbiased test session that's uniform for every child across the state."
Young says that's why it's "super important" to stick to the scripted remarks on testing day; any impromptu comments could be interpreted as improper coaching. For teachers, that can feel like a command to be robotic at a time when their students most need a little warmth and encouragement.
The end of the school year sparks an annual scramble for thousands of volunteer proctors who are legally required to keep an eye on faculty to make sure they're not breaking rules. That job is important enough to merit its own 12-page guide from the state.
"The biggest thing is the way we're not trusted," said Sandy Wade, a teacher at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Park Road Montessori School. She added: "I get it. Thank you, Atlanta. Thank you, Houston."
She was referring to cities where educators were caught cheating to boost their students' scores — as well their own reputations and/or pay. But even teachers who understand the rationale say the barrage of testing rules can erode their sense of professional respect, a frustration that flared visibly at a recent "Red For Ed / Rally for Respect" march that drew thousands to Raleigh and forced at least 42 school districts to close because of anticipated teacher absences.
Teachers and proctors are both expected to keep walking among the students during exams. Students who finish early can quietly read, but the adults are forbidden to touch books, cellphones and anything else that might distract them.
If the teacher administering the test needs a bathroom break, the school's testing coordinator has to be notified. If students need to go, the teacher has to log the time and volunteers are often asked to provide an escort.
North Carolina's transition to online testing has introduced new twists, from the fear that computers and Wi-Fi won't work to the need for teachers to arrive early and make sure each computer is ready.
Each school figures out ways to avoid distractions that could result in the dreaded "misadministration" finding, which would force a class to take the test again. Bells that signal class changes are turned off. Students who aren't taking year-end exams — in elementary schools, that includes K-2 children — are generally kept away from the classes giving tests, and children are cautioned to remain silent if they have to step into the halls.
"One year we were told not to let anyone flush the toilets because the noise was too much of a distraction," said Jodie Register Moore, a parent and volunteer in Rose Hill, an eastern North Carolina town.
Is it worthwhile?
The value of standardized exams is a subject of fierce debate.
Students who contend with poverty, racism, disabilities and/or language barriers consistently log lower scores. Despite testing accommodations for disabilities and limited English skills, several teachers say they watch students sit down for exams they have little hope of passing.
And in North Carolina, the schools labeled D or F are almost always those serving neighborhoods where the kids face major challenges.
But some say as long as the current system exists, it provides a rare up-close experience for outsiders who volunteer.
Drew Polly, a professor of education at UNC Charlotte, said he has volunteered as a proctor for 12 years.
"The amount of fatigue, the amount of mental anguish on a kid's face — you get a different appreciation for the education process, especially testing," he said.