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NC Reading Exams For Young Students Pose Challenges For Remote Learners

Aaron Burden

Remote learning plays a major role in most students' education this fall, which poses new challenges for testing. In some cases, children who are barely old enough to read are taking online exams from home.

Some parents are asking why the tests are being given while teachers, parents and students are still getting used to remote classes. The answer is simple: Because the state requires it.

Credit Iredell-Statesville Schools
Iredell-Statesville Schools
Chris Grace

"It’s one of those necessary evils in education. We need to follow all of our state guidelines and whatnot," said Chris Grace, principal of Lakeshore Elementary in Mooresville.

He says there is value to the testing required by North Carolina’s Read To Achieve program. The goal to make sure young students get the reading skills that lay the foundation for academic success.

The tests for K-2 students are used to provide teachers with information on which students need extra help and which are ready to move beyond their grade level.

Districts use different programs but they all work on the same principle: They’re trying to figure out a child’s reading level, not award a pass-or-fail grade.

Grace says there’s a complication to that when children take the tests from home. Parents generally have to help their children sign on for the test, and they tend to stay, watch … and maybe help a bit. But that can thwart the programming that adjusts the difficulty level when students get answers right or wrong.

"And then the parents get frustrated because this computer program is making my child stressed out, they’re crying over these questions, and then we get a result that isn’t necessarily where the student would have or should have tested at," Grace said.

Then there’s the Beginning of Grade reading exam that all North Carolina third-graders have to take within the first 20 days of school. That one has to be taken at school.

In Iredell-Statesville, students are split into two alternating groups for in-person attendance to allow for safe distancing. Grace said the Beginning of Grade test normally takes one day. This year he had two days for the two groups of students who are coming to Lakeshore and two more optional days when students enrolled in remote learning could come to the cafeteria and take the test. Or they could wait until their parents decide it’s safe for them to come in person.

"Not everybody came in to do it," Grace said. "We didn’t force anyone to do it."

Testing In CMS

Testing looks a bit different in CMS, which is more than seven times bigger than Iredell-Statesville and opened with no in-person classes.

Dina Beelaert's youngest son is in fourth grade and has dyslexia. This year the state is requiring fourth-graders to take a reading test that can be given remotely. CMS is using one called MAP.

She said his teacher at Selwyn Elementary gave parents very clear instructions about staying out of the room while students took the reading test – for the very reason Lakeshore’s principal talked about. During testing, the teacher monitored students via Zoom.

But Beelaert said her son, who was behind closed doors in his bedroom, missed the cue to begin. "Normally they’re in their class, and they say, 'OK, everyone – begin.'" 

This time "he sat for 20 minutes without doing anything. And he came out of his room and said, 'Mama, has it started yet?'" 

When he realized he’d made a mistake, "because he has test anxiety, he had a meltdown for 20 minutes," Beelaert said. His teacher realized something had gone wrong and texted Beelaert. Eventually, they got him calmed down and he took the test.

Tests To Check Needs

All students in grades K-4 have to take the reading tests, but CMS gives MAP tests in reading and math to all students in elementary and middle school. Frank Barnes, the CMS administrator in charge of testing, said the district uses the data to make sure students get the proper level of classes.

Credit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes

Last week the testing system crashed for students in North Carolina and South Carolina. But Barnes said the delay isn’t a huge concern. The bigger challenge, he said, has to do with help available for students working at home:

"Basically you need someone to help – especially a young person, say, K to 2 to 3 – to help sign in, that it was also pushing adult capacity in the way that you’re thinking about 'OK, I don’t know anything about this assessment, how do I help them sign in?'"

But he said parents shouldn’t be too stressed.

"These assessments aren’t high stakes assessments at all," he said. "They’re used to inform us, to see which students need extra help or are even ready for extra challenge. They’re not for a grade. They’re not to assess access for magnets or anything else."

When School Presence Is Required

As for the grade 3 Beginning of Grade reading tests, CMS won’t start giving those until students return in person. Last week the school board approveda phased-in schedule that has elementary students coming back to classrooms Nov. 2.

The CMS schedule calls for high school students to come back the week of Dec. 14 to take state End of Course exams in English 2, Biology, Math 1 and Math 3. Only the students enrolled in those classes first semester will report then.

There’s a twist to that, though: Some of the students who took EOC courses first semester are enrolled in the district’s Full Remote Academy because they – or their parents – didn’t want them exposed to COVID-19. But the exams have to be taken in person at school.

"We’re looking to see what accommodations we can make and what waivers might be in place for us to accommodate those families," Barnes said Friday. 

By spring, that question will become much larger. By the end of the year, everyone from third grade up faces required exams that must be taken at school.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.