Politics & Government

Are NC students tested too much in school? Some legislators think so — and want to change that.

State lawmakers could overhaul the way North Carolina’s public school students are tested, resulting in fewer exams being given by the state and local school districts.

A newly filed bill sponsored by some key Republican lawmakers would eliminate and/or replace some state-mandated exams and require school districts to reduce the number of tests they give. House Bill 377 is giving hope to some parents and teachers that it will address at least some of their concerns that the state is overtesting students with high-stakes standardized exams.

The bill won initial approval on Tuesday, March 26, from the House Education Committee. It has several more steps to go.

“We’re really excited about it as far as what we’re seeing,” said Suzanne Miller, a Raleigh parent and a leader of the group N.C. Families For School Testing Reform. “We certainly have some questions as well. Eliminating the EOGs (end-of-grade exams) is certainly something we’re supportive of.”

Since at least the 1990s, parents, teachers, superintendents and education advocacy groups have complained about the increased amount of testing. These tests influence many things, including whether students are promoted to the next grade level, principal pay, teacher bonuses and letter grades that label each public school as high- or low-performing.

Mika Twietmeyer, a biology teacher at Riverside High School in Durham, pointed to how the school district wants students to retake the state end-of-course biology exam if they didn’t pass it last semester. But Twietmeyer said passing won’t change the student’s grade and would only improve the school’s performance on the state report card.

“I am in support of less testing to tell teachers things they already know about their students,” said Twietmeyer, who is the Durham Public Schools’ 2019 Teacher of the Year. “I’m definitely against tests that districts buy from third parties, and I’m against tests that we make students take that aren’t showing them what they learned and aren’t showing them their growth.”

The state Department of Public Instruction says 78 percent of the more than 42,000 parents who responded to a November survey said their children take too many tests. State officials also say that 76 percent of teachers have said that students are being tested too much.

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State Rep. Jeffrey Elmore Jeffrey Elmore

The complaints have led to State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson announcing some testing changes, including reducing the length of some state exams.

But Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Republican from Wilkes County, wants to go even further. Elmore, co-chairman of the House Education Committee, says the amount and length of tests being given have turned the system into a “test of endurance” for younger students.

“I don’t think any teacher would say that we should not test,” said Elmore, an art teacher in the Wilkes County school system. “I hate using metaphor, but we’re taking a bazooka to an ant in trying to solve our assessments.”

Elmore is one of four primary sponsors, all Republicans, for House Bill 377. The others are Reps. Kyle Hall of Stokes County, John Bell of Wayne County and Debra Conrad of Forsyth County.

The bill would:

Replace the state EOG exams given in grades 3-8 in reading and math with the NC Check-Ins.

Eliminate the remaining state end-of-course (EOC) exams for biology, English and math typically taken by high school students. They’d be replaced by the ACT now taken by all of the state’s high school juniors or by a “nationally recognized assessment of high school achievement and college readiness.”

Eliminate the ACT WorkKeys test in high school.

Eliminate the N.C. Final exams. These state tests are given to students of teachers who don’t have results from an EOG or EOC that can be used to evaluate their performance.

Prohibit school districts from giving standardized tests not required by the State Board of Education.

Prohibit school districts from requiring students to do a high school graduation project. The project involves students researching and writing a paper on a topic that they’ve chosen and presenting the project to a panel.

“If you do something comprehensive with the testing, you have to target the local level because if you don’t, they will build or currently have a layer of testing that they will not pull away,” Elmore said.

The bill won’t affect any local tests developed by teachers, according to Elmore.

‘Strike a proper balance’

The bill is an encouraging sign that lawmakers recognize that the state has gone too far in the direction of overtesting, according to Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

“It’s time to take a step and right-size them and strike a proper balance between accountability and what we believe is rampant overtesting, particularly high-stakes testing that we think is stressful for students and of questionable value for teachers,” Poston said.

One of the most significant changes in the bill is the switch to the N.C. Check-Ins, a state program that’s currently only voluntary.

Under the Check-Ins, students take three tests each in reading and math during the school year. The Check-Ins are shorter than the end-of-grade exams.

The bill would use the average of the scores from the Check-Ins for the state’s accountability system. The state would have to develop a Check-In for third-grade reading and in science for 5th and 8th-grades.

“These shorter tests, I think, will give you a better, accurate picture of where the child’s at and the teacher can actually use the information from test 1 to test 2,” said Elmore, the lawmaker. “They can see what growth is made there and so at that last semester see what gains they need to make, what areas they need to work on.”

Justin Parmenter, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Waddell Language Academy, agreed that it would be better to use the Check-Ins in place of the end-of-grade exams.

“This bill would be a step in the right direction,” Parmenter said. “Right now we have a single, high-stress end-of-year assessment which yields next to no useful data to help teachers plan instruction for their students.

“So moving toward a system of formative assessments which yield data on exactly which standards students are missing would be more useful.”

‘Consider all the aspects’

Hayley Rowley, a third-grade teacher at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Renaissance West STEAM Academy, says that teachers will need to be trained in how to interpret the data from the Check-Ins to get the most benefit. She also raised concerns about how the Check-Ins are “subject to the whims of a 9-year-old’s competency at taking an entirely electronic test, when some of them don’t even start the year with a firm grasp of how to write their name on the lines of notebook paper.”

“Overall, I see the merits of reconsidering the way we measure student progress, but this bill doesn’t seem to consider all the aspects of real-life implementation in classrooms across our state,” Rowley said.

Some critics of high-stakes testing also say that the legislation doesn’t go far enough. Nan Fulcher, an Orange County parent and a leader of N.C. Families For School Testing Reform, said that even while the bill has positives it carries “much of the same baggage of the old system.”

Elmore says those concerns can be potentially addressed in other legislation. He said what the bill accomplishes is reducing the amount of testing while still ensuring school accountability, meeting federal regulations and requiring only minor changes to the state’s school grading system.

It’s unclear if there will be enough support among lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, but Elmore says he’s hopeful.

“I think that you will have the will in the House to see this,” Elmore said. “We’ll just have to see how far the Senate wants to take it.

“I feel like there are Senators that are just like the general public that realize that we are testing too much and is it necessary to be testing at that level to get the information that we need?”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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