As at the end of every academic year, over the next few weeks public school students will take state-issued standardized tests to gauge how much they’ve learned since the start of school last fall.
But Moore County Schools officials reported last week that the results might be skewed by their lack of relevance to students themselves.
Students take tests designed required by North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction beginning in third grade. Tests in reading and math administered in elementary and middle school, while useful to teachers in identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses, have no effect on their grades.
But in high school, where the state requires students to take end-of-course tests in a few classes — English II, Math I and Biology — those final exam scores count for 25 percent of the course grade. That shift to taking the EOC for credit, school staff reported at last week’s school board work session, is a jarring one for some students.
The Moore County Board of Education may re-evaluate its policy regarding the weight of those exams to ease students’ transition from middle to high school. By state law, EOC scores have to comprise at least 20 percent of the grade in their respective courses.
“Through feedback and meetings with our parent advisory councils and student advisory councils, parents, particularly parents of our socioeconomically disadvantaged students, are telling us that they’re not prepared for the challenge of high school in terms of the weight,” said Doug Massengill, principal at West Pine Middle. “There’s a sticker shock that occurs because these tests have never counted.”
That isn’t the first complaint surrounding North Carolina’s testing system. Over the years, the state has made local districts and individual schools increasingly accountable for student performance.
Since 2014, it has done that through school report cards, assigning a letter grade to every public school in the state each fall based on student performance on that year’s tests.
Students are now faced with a series of similar tests throughout the year, both to assess progress and to prepare students for the hours-long end of year test period. That has drawn ire from parents, students and even local school staff alike.
“Have there been any discussions on the state level in terms of looking at these tests and the validity of them?” asked Chair Helena Wallin-Miller. “One of the things that people have been very concerned about is the amount of testing. Has this come up at all on the legislative level?”
The percentage of students with a passing score or better counts for 80 percent of the letter grade on each school’s report card. The other 20 percent is based on whether students generally met, failed to meet or exceeded academic growth standards during the year. That system has remained in place since school report cards were introduced, despite superintendents statewide lobbying to balance or even reverse that ratio.
“If we can judge the discourse that relates to the formula for letter grades, we have a General Assembly that seems quite confident in this 80-20 balance between proficiency being 80 percent and growth being 20 percent,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “That would signal that the General Assembly is quite satisfied with the testing program.”
Student test scores are also the basis for the state’s system of granting financial incentives to teachers in subject areas considered critical — fourth- and fifth-grade reading and math, and middle school math. Based on student growth on EOGs, the top 25 percent of teachers in each district are eligible for bonuses of over $2,000.
While the state may be content with testing as it is, some students and parents aren’t. Though it isn’t common, some schools are reporting that students — with parental support — refuse to participate when their class is taking the EOG.
According to Massengill, that included about four students at West Pine Middle last year. In advisory council meetings, the school has found that some students are apathetic about spending hours taking a test when a good score will not affect their grade.
“I think increasingly we have parents that are exercising their right to become informed … and as they do so those that are anti-state accountability are encouraging their students to engage in this practice,” he said.
“We have to present the test to them, in some cases multiple times, where they sit there during the course of the entire testing session. When that occurs the score is calculated as the lowest possible score, both for the school’s proficiency and for the teacher’s growth.”
Beginning to give the the end-of-grade test weight in the middle school grades, Grimesey said, could be an “intermediate incentive” for students to take the test seriously without the results necessarily constituting a quarter of their final grade.
“We have parents whose children do care about the test, and the parents care about the test, and they’re feeling as if their children are going to high school and they’ve had no warmup,” he said.