Testing in North Carolina public schools will now be less demanding because of an initiative announced by N.C. State Superintendent Mark Johnson last week.
According to his Jan. 15 announcement, Johnson considered feedback from parents and teachers, many of whom felt students were taking too many tests, and implemented several steps to reduce testing.
Some of those steps include reducing the number of test questions, reducing the amount of time students sit for tests, working to reduce the amount of locally required tests and giving students ways to show progress aside from testing.
“We will be working with local superintendents and state leaders to reform the system of over-testing,” Johnson said in the statement. “That way, we can give the teachers the time to do what they entered the profession to do: teach.”
Tina CoyneSmith, a parent to a fourth-grader and a high school student in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said she and other parents in the CHCCS district were curious about and confused by Johnson’s announcement. She said she’d love to see a reduction in state testing, but has yet to see any real steps in that direction.
CoyneSmith said her fourth-grader took around 13 standardized tests during the 2017-18 school year. She thinks that number is too high, and her students aren’t benefiting from having so many tests.
“From a parent perspective, it feels to me like all of this testing is not helping us achieve the end result of improving student outcome,” she said.
CoyneSmith feels the amount of testing is actually harming students because it takes them away from their time with teachers.
Ultimately, she thinks Johnson’s steps to reduce testing are only addressing part of the issue. She said her children should not be evaluated solely on a test score.
“Right now, testing drives everything,” she said. “It drives how schools are evaluated, it drives how students are evaluated, it drives how teachers are evaluated.”
CoyneSmith believes the larger issue is that one “one-shot, high-stakes testing” is used to judge a student’s achievement and the services they will receive, and students should instead be evaluated qualitatively by their teacher, rather than quantitatively.
“I want us to have a real culture shift where we ask ourselves, ‘How can we best evaluate student progress, teacher progress and school progress?’” CoyneSmith said. “And I think answering that question will lead us down a path of less testing.”
Terry Stoops, vice president for research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, thinks Johnson has identified a problem that many have tried to solve in the past, and that’s the widespread discontent with the state testing program.
Stoops oversees the research division at the John Locke Foundation and researches K-12 education policy in North Carolina. Stoops said the problem with testing in North Carolina is that there are too many tests of low quality and limited usefulness.
Diane Villwock, executive director for assessment and research for CHCCS, said she thinks Johnson’s message seems to insinuate that testing will be radically reduced. But, she said noticeable changes to testing in CHCCS won’t come from minor adjustments to major tests.
Villwock said there’s a balance to find when it comes to testing. She said there needs to be a test that administrators can trust to provide data on how well students understand course material. At the same time, that data needs to be used in a purposeful way.
State testing is heavily mandated by the federal government, so she sees these changes as Johnson’s way of taking the small steps he can to reform state testing, she said.
“There’s nothing wrong with re-examining what we do and making sure it still makes sense,” Villwock said.
Johnson’s recent initiatives are potentially a good start to testing reform, Stoops said, but there’s a larger systemic issue with testing in North Carolina that isn’t being addressed. He said the discontent with testing in North Carolina is the cumulative effect of the fact that testing at state, district and local levels seem unconnected.
“If we’re going to do a large-scale reform of testing, then it’s going to require, starting from the ground up, a complete reconceptualization of what testing looks like on the local level, the district level and the state level,” Stoops said. “And that is going to require a lot of different people coming together to find ways to integrate the testing program across all the levels.”
Stoops said Johnson taking these initial steps to reduce state testing could indicate to districts that he is open to having those conversations.