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Education

Remote Students Across North Carolina Return To School To Take A High Stakes Test

 Student Jennifer Galvez Gonzalez elbow bumps fifth grade teacher Kelly Shearon at Lakewood Elementary, as she enters the school to take her science end-of-grade exam, May 19, 2021.
Liz Schlemmer
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WUNC
Student Jennifer Galvez Gonzalez elbow bumps fifth grade teacher Kelly Shearon at Lakewood Elementary, as she enters the school to take her science end-of-grade exam, May 19, 2021.

On a recent Monday morning in teacher Kelly Shearon's fifth grade class at Lakewood Elementary in Durham, the conversation turned to the upcoming end-of-grade exams ― better known to North Carolina kids as the EOG's.

Shearon was ready with a pep talk.

"Y'all, this year has been pretty wild. Am I right?" Shearon started off.

She listed all the challenges her students have overcome this year: virtual classes, bad internet connections, sick family members, and stepping up to take care of younger siblings — plus losing time together in class.

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Liz Schlemmer
Fifth grade teacher Kelly Shearon gives her students a pep talk about their end-of-grade exams at Lakewood Elementary.

"It's just been really hard, and you guys need to know that," Shearon told her students. "I am so proud of you, and there is nothing you could score on the EOG to make me any less proud of you."

The end-of-grade exams are state mandated standardized tests used to hold schools accountable for students’ learning.

Shearon recalled their first day back together, months earlier in March.

"Our first day back in-person," Shearon said, "it took about 20 minutes into the day, right, before a hand went up and asked, 'Are we taking EOG's? End-of-grade tests?'"

Shearon says for many of her students, the tests are a looming anxiety — like for 11-year-old Jairo.

"I don't know how others feel. I just know how I feel," he said. "I think I'm the most nervous one."

Jairo isn't sure how his classmates feel because he hasn't talked to them face-to-face in more than a year. When Durham Public Schools shifted to in-person classes, Jairo's family decided to keep him in virtual school.

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Liz Schlemmer
Lakewood Elementary fifth grader Jairo is nervous about his end-of-grade exams as he looks forward to middle school.

He has taken the end-of-grade exams only once before, in third grade, since last year the federal government allowed states to cancel their exams due to the pandemic.

In the mean time, Jairo's family moved to Raleigh, and he continued to attend Lakewood Elementary virtually. He hasn't seen his school since August.

"I got a Chromebook. That's the last time I went to school," Jairo remembers.

This month, thousands of kids across the state like Jairo are visiting their schools for the first time in many months, to take a series of three-hour tests.

The federal government did not waive the exams again this spring and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is requiring remote students to take the tests in person.

"There are so many things I would love to do with all my students. Meeting them for the first time and taking a test is not on the top of my list," said fifth grade teacher Leah Erlbaum.

Fifth grader Jairo enters Lakewood Elementary for the first time in many months with his former teacher Kelly Shearon. After nearly a full school year of virtual learning, Jairo returns to take his end-of-grade exams.
Liz Schlemmer
Fifth grader Jairo enters Lakewood Elementary for the first time in many months with his former teacher Kelly Shearon. After nearly a full school year of virtual learning, Jairo returns to take his end-of-grade exams.

Erlbaum is Jairo's new teacher at Lakewood Elementary. He had to switch classes mid-year since Shearon now teaches in person.

Sitting in his living room a few days before his science exam, Jairo told Erlbaum over a video screen that he's worried if he doesn't get enough questions right he might not go on to middle school.

"Jairo, no matter what happens on the test, you will pass fifth grade," she assured him.

"Ok," he replied, breathing a sigh of relief. "Ok, that's nice to know."

Erlbaum explains that because Jairo has been doing fine in school overall, one poor test score isn't enough to hold him back. While Jairo can relax about his exam, the end-of-grade tests have high stakes for educators and public schools.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction collects the EOG data so state education officials can see how students across North Carolina are doing.

Of the various standardized tests elementary students typically take each spring, the EOG's carry by far the highest stakes for the school.

The end-of-grade exams typically have consequences for teacher bonuses and principal pay. They also determine what A through F grade the school receives. That grade can affect local home values and how new families moving into the neighborhood view the school and whether they opt for a charter or private school instead.

The state Senate has approved legislation to forgo school letter grades for a second year in a row because of the pandemic disruptions, but that proposal has yet to pass the House. How the test scores will be used to determine teacher bonuses and principal pay is uncertain, and that may require further legislative action.

Fifth grader Christopher Morales Perez greets his teacher Leah Erlbaum at Lakewood Elementary as the virtual students reunite at school to take their end-of-grade exams.
Liz Schlemmer
Fifth grader Christopher Morales Perez greets his teacher Leah Erlbaum at Lakewood Elementary as the virtual students reunite at school to take their end-of-grade exams.

Located in one of the more diverse and racially balanced neighborhoods in Durham County, the student population at Lakewood Elementary is predominantly low-income and most students are Latino or Black. That trend is affected by higher income families and white families in the area opting for other schools.

Numerous studies nationwide have shown that how students score on standardized tests is correlated with their family's socioeconomic status. According to a 2005 meta-analysis of nearly 50 studies on the relationship between socioeconomic status and academic achievement, that relationship is stronger for entire schools than for individual students.

Principal James Hopkins knows his students have lost valuable class time this year that might set back recent progress the school has made on its letter grade.

"I've wrestled with this a lot, because we were riding a huge momentum wave at the end of the 2018-2019 school year," Hopkins said.

That school year, Lakewood Elementary advanced from an F to a C letter grade based on their test scores alone. That was the last time North Carolina students took the EOGs.

That unusually strong improvement was the result of hard work, new curriculum, additional funding and Hopkins' leadership. After the Department of Public Instruction put the elementary school on a short list to possibly be taken over by a charter school operator, Durham Public Schools hired Hopkins to help lead the school's turnaround efforts.

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Courtesy of James Hopkins
James Hopkins is principal of Lakewood Elementary.

Hopkins said he hopes the school can show its community the school's past success wasn’t an accident and that the school has built a culture of high expectations.

"It's not so much that I fear that our grade is going to go down," Hopkins said. "My big concern is that we've not been around our students enough to show them that Lakewood is a great school."

"We're not prepping students to take a test," Hopkins underscored. "We're preparing students to be confident entering the next grade."

For Jairo, the end-of-grade exams will mark the last time he spends at Lakewood Elementary, as he looks forward to middle school and all the new changes and challenges ahead.

This story has been updated to clarify how the stakes for end-of-grade exams are being modified this year.

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