SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Test Program Undermined By Conflicts
In place since the early 1990s, North Carolina's public school standardized testing program is under attack these days on a number of fronts.
Critical educators were recently quoted in The Charlotte Observer saying that far too many students who are gauged as proficient on end-of-grade tests are actually far from it.
In July, the journal Education Next gave the state an "F" for the rigor of the testing program.
Embarrassing problems have also come to light when the tests have been periodically changed. In 2001, testing officials set passing standards so low on math tests that virtually all students passed.
Howard Lee, chairman of the state Board of Education, told the Charlotte newspaper that test standards should be raised to better reflect students' true performance. "It will be a shock to the system," he said. "But I think the citizens and parents have a right to know the truth."
Other critics jumped on Lee's admission by characterizing the tests as a monumental fraud, a reflection of widespread failure within the public schools.
Meanwhile, various parent groups for years have attacked the whole notion of "high stakes" testing, in which a single standardized test carries so much weight.
Still, the critics may be missing the root of the problem.
No testing program is going to be successful when it is created or evolves with competing goals and objectives.
The question that Lee, the state Board of Education, state schools Superintendent June Atkinson and the rest of the state education establishment need to answer: What is the purpose of the program?
Is it to gauge individual student performance, a useful measure to determine whether each student is learning the expected coursework, needs additional help or should be promoted?
Or, are the scores to be used to judge students and schools collectively, a year-to-year barometer of whether teachers, schools and school districts are improving or getting worse?
Right now, the answers to both questions seem to be "yes." As a result, neither objective is being effectively met.
Teachers, principals and local school officials will hardly endorse toughening testing standards, especially over time, when their performance is being judged by the testing regime.
Why should they? If the goal is to judge their performance, then setting a performance benchmark and following it year-to-year is only fair.
But if the point is to raise each student's performance, one child at a time, then raising the proficiency standards makes sense.
Complicating it all is the federal No Child Left Behind Act, an unintended consequence of which is encouraging state tests with low standards so that schools aren't sanctioned.
Finally, flaws in North Carolina's testing program don't mean that the public schools haven't improved during the time that it has been in effect.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests show dramatic gains among fourth-graders and eighth-graders in math and some progress in reading. Math scores now exceed the national average.
A complete picture of North Carolina public schools is hardly a completely dire one.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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