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Top CMS official agrees with critics who say it's time to scale back on testing

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ANN DOSS HELMS
/
WFAE

The spring testing season is more intense this year as schools push to get students back on track after the disruption of the pandemic. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, some teachers say the reliance on test scores to track progress has gone too far.

"From spring break on, it is full court press with test preparation," said CMS third-grade teacher Jen Bourne. "The season formerly known as springtime in North Carolina is now testing season for children in the elementary level."

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Courtesy of Jen Bourne
Jen Bourne

Bourne is a member of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. She’s also a CMS parent with a leadership role in a group called North Carolina Families for School Testing Reform. She’s written articles about what she thinks standardized testing does to schools.

"The number of tests, the quantity, is really scary," she said recently. "But it’s changed the culture and that’s the big thing. You know, they don’t have any play anymore."

A CMS fourth-grade teacher, who wouldn’t do an interview for fear of getting in trouble with her bosses, recently tallied the reading and math tests her students are required to take this year. She counted at least 15 required by the state, including the big year-end exams. And the district requires at least 42 more. If students do badly and retake the tests, the total could reach 82.

Worried adults mean more exams

In general, the more adults worry about children falling behind, the more they demand testing data to identify and fix the problems. And these are troubling times.

Even before the pandemic, North Carolina lawmakers were alarmed by the large number of third-graders being promoted without mastering grade-level reading. They passed a Read To Achieve bill that brought layers of additional tests, all with their own acronyms.

In addition to state exams given at the beginning and end of the year, there are Iready diagnostics, MAP, DIBELS and MAZE, each given three times a year to capture student reading progress.

CMS leaders have long been concerned about racial disparities that begin with basic skills. The pandemic set all kids back, especially in districts like CMS that played it safe and kept kids in remote classes longer. During the pandemic, CMS rolled out a new reading curriculum known as EL.

"The EL curriculum has added additional tests," Bourne said. "There are four modules at every grade level, one per quarter. There are three units within each module. Each unit has a mid-unit assessment and a summative assessment."

The CMS math curriculum has its own set of required tests. The district put out videos this year to help parents understand how assessment ties into pandemic recovery, as well as a slideshow explaining what the district calls a "balanced assessment system."

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
A CMS "balanced assessment" presentation lays out the different types of testing and methods used to gauge learning.

Time to scale back?

Frank Barnes, the CMS administrator in charge of using all that test data to shape equity and improvement, says concerns about too much testing are legitimate.

"We need to look closely, now that we see where we are, and ask ‘What can we get rid of or do less of?' " he said.

Barnes, who is CMS chief accountability officer, says the accumulation of tests evolved for a good reason — or, more precisely, three good reasons.

First, there’s the accountability movement that emerged 20 years ago with the federal No Child Left Behind Act (now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act).

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CMS
Frank Barnes

By insisting that all public schools test students in core academic areas and present the results broken out by race, income and other categories, the Department of Education made it clear that large numbers of Black, Hispanic and low-income students were not getting the skills they needed.

"Really we’re trying to say how can we increase the transparency of how our students are doing from different racial backgrounds, and then also how do we ask schools to account for how students did?" Barnes said.

That put the spotlight on year-end exams. But Barnes says it’s at least as important to gauge progress during the year while classes are in progress.

"And so you also want to know what students know and can do so you can build on their strengths and improve where they have opportunities for advancement," he said.

The third force driving the testing boom is the mastery movement. That requires not just reteaching material where students fell short but giving kids the chance to retake the test to show how they’ve improved.

"If there’s a key element of learning that’s unfinished, to go back and help you get that so that then you’re not punished because you didn’t get it in the first try," Barnes said.

Trying to find the balance

So all those tests potentially serve a purpose. For example, the school board now uses mid-year testing data to keep tabs on the superintendent’s efforts to close racial gaps and address pandemic learning loss.

But each test takes time away from teaching and learning. Bourne, the teacher who’s critical of standardized testing, says that squeezes out social studies and science, as well as arts and creative play. That’s especially true, she says, in high-poverty schools like the one she teaches in, where students face disadvantages that often lead to lower scores.

"So those are the kids who are having the most unpleasant school experience in our community because they are having to take all those retests," she said.

Barnes, the chief accountability officer, says he’s not worried about arts and play, which are built into the school day. He says he worries that testing reading and math eats into time for teaching those core subjects.

"We need to look closely at do we have too much and what can we do away with, or at least suspend, in preparation for the next school year," he said before spring break. "I think we’ve gotten to that volume of testing that we have to take that critical look and call that critical question."

But as classes resume after spring break, the year-end exams are only a few weeks away. And that means there’s no letting up for now.

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Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.