State to try out new public school testing strategy

About 9,000 students will take shorter, more frequent standardized tests this upcoming year.

The state Board of Education is trying to determine whether a new system for evaluating academic progress will be less stressful and more productive than big end-of-grade exams for children, teachers and parents.

The state board voted Thursday to try out a new way of testing that, to members’ knowledge, no other state has attempted.

“We’re kind of embarking on new ground here,” said board member Wayne McDevitt.

Students in grades three through eight take state standardized tests in reading and math at the end of the school year. The tests have been criticized as useless for teachers who want to use results to guide lessons, too stressful for students and parents, and developmentally inappropriate for younger children who cannot sit and focus for hours at a time.

The board voted to try giving three shorter tests during the school year – along with shorter end-of-grade tests at the end of the year – to selected classes to find out whether a new system can work as intended. Fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms from around the state are being selected to participate so that the state Department of Public Instruction will have a sample that represents the statewide student population.

State education officials can find out what works and what doesn’t, said June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction. “North Carolina will continue in its leadership to get to another generation of assessment,” she said. “This is an effort to answer questions. The answers will determine where the board will go, ultimately.”

The idea comes from a board task force that looked at changes to standardized testing. Board members were hesitant to move too quickly on the task force’s suggestions, and wanted to make sure they weren’t committing to make the changes.

“This is an awfully big decision,” said board member Tricia Willoughby. She suggested the board receive monthly reports as the tryout proceeds. “We need to be careful that research questions provide measurable data.”

If the tryout produces the results board members seek, the new testing system could be used statewide in the 2016-17 school year. But it’s far from certain that the state will get that far.

The legislature would need to rewrite laws to allow the board to make the sweeping changes, said board vice chairman A.L. Collins, who led the task force. The state might need permission from the federal government, too, he said. Along the way, the board would need to look carefully at every aspect “and be willing to say ‘no’ if it doesn’t work.”

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Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner