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Families, Education Leaders Push For Fewer Standardized Tests And Lower Stakes

multiple choice test
Alberto G.
Flickr Creative Commons

Testing season is wrapping up for many public school students in North Carolina. They’ve spent hours bubbling in answer sheets, proving to teachers what they’ve learned.

But end-of-year exams only represent a handful of the dozens of tests students take throughout a school year. The assessments are part of a testing regimen that education leaders are trying to rethink.

Since at least the early 1990s, education critics, parents and students have questioned whether there are too many standardized tests.

For Durham high school senior Jacob Whittaker, the answer is yes, followed by a harsh critique.  

“They are useless,” he says. “I just don’t think they’re like a good measure of how well you do because I know a lot of kids who are really smart and tests just get them stressed out and get them worked up.”

But Whittaker isn’t one of those kids.

“I am,” says his friend, Katie Robbins. “I’m an intelligent person, but I’m not that focused on academics.”

Robbins, a high school senior from Chatham County, says tests don’t adequately measure her knowledge on a subject.

“When I’m like put on the spot, and I have to figure things out, I’m not as good at things,” she says.

On this evening, she and Whittaker are watching a movie at the mall with some friends. When asked if they plan to study for any of their end-of-year tests most of them chuckle or softly shake their heads.

“Probably not,” Whittaker says.

“One of the tests, of our teachers told us we only have to get 11 out of the 40 questions right to pass because of the curve,” says Becca Whittaker, a freshman at Jordan High School. “Like if you went in and marked A for every question, you’d pass… So, it just shows that they’re not effective.”

“Any student in school would think that we over-test. We have to put tests in perspective,” explains state Superintendent June Atkinson.

Atkinson says there are two reasons why tests are so important: The first is to judge how schools are doing (for the first time, schools this year were assigned A-F grades based largely on student test scores); the second is to figure what the students know to drive classroom instruction.

The question, she says, isn’t whether students take too many tests, but whether they’re taking the right ones.

“In some respects, I believe North Carolina has lost its balance and its focus on what are the reasons why we test," she says. 

If you try counting the different tests students take, it would get very confusing, very quickly. Eighth grade is the year that students take the most tests.

According to a report from the Department of Instruction, they spend about 24 hours during the school year being assessed. That doesn’t count the quizzes or small tests teachers give on their own.

“Part of the confusion is that parents and students do not where if the test originates from the state or whether it is a local test,” Atkinson explains.

The state is required to give out end-of-grade tests for 3rd through 8th graders, and one exam in high school, based on a federal law known as No Child Left Behind.

North Carolina also gives out final exams to meet the conditions of a federal Race to the Top grant. The grant, which was awarded in 2010, added more federal requirements to statewide assessments that focus on evaluating teachers based on student performance. It resulted in N.C. Final Exams, which has received pushback from many school districts.

Then, there are lots of local tests that districts administer to make sure students are on track. In Durham, some think those district assessments have gotten out of hand.

At a recent school board meeting, parents and young students arrived with one request.

“I hope the district will reduce the amount of tests as well as the time required to take these tests,” says 11-year-old student Isabella Peters.

Peters tells the board she understands that Durham can’t do anything about the state or federally mandated tests. But because of complaints like hers, the school board is in the process of reviewing the different local tests and figuring out which ones are necessary.

Part of the plan is to survey teachers in the classroom to see how they feel.

“I feel like we’re creating teachers who know how to give tests instead of creating teachers who know how to teach,” says Paula Januzzi Godfrey, an instructional facilitator at Pearsontown Elementary school. “The catch-22 is that if you’re testing, then you’re not teaching.”

Durham plans to give schools different testing options next year to see what works best.

It’ll happen as the state rolls out its own plan to potentially replace end-of-grade exams with shorter interim assessments that would ideally allow teachers to better shape instruction. Any formal changes, of course, could take years. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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