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A Peek Inside Standardized Testing

Lisa Worf
Courtney Mason in her classroom at Piney Grove Elementary.

Courtney Mason in her classroom at Piney Grove Elementary. Standardized testing is nothing new in North Carolina. Last year Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools added tests to help gauge how well teachers are teaching. That upset many parents who worry their kids are spending too much time filling in bubbles and not enough time learning. CMS administrators say the tests provide accountability and show teachers where their students need extra attention. WFAE's Lisa Miller sat down with a CMS teacher to understand how that works. Courtney Mason is a 4th grade math teacher at Piney Grove Elementary on Charlotte's east side. She was a horrible test-taker herself and so she understands the tears and stress that can come on test days. "A student could be at a 4, but if they hate taking tests and they're nervous, then they're not going to do well and they're not going to perform to their best ability," says Mason. Like other CMS students, her kids spend at least twenty days a year taking standardized tests and she has mixed feelings about that. A whole lot of emphasis is put on the End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests. Those tests can determine whether a student makes it to the next grade. They're also used to assess a school's performance and, to some extent, a teacher's. A few years from now, they could be a factor in teacher pay. "The EOGs are talked about in August all the way through the end of the year," says Mason. There are also a series of tests throughout the year called formatives that help teachers understand what their students have learned. They also predict how well they'll score on the EOGs and EOCs. Think of them as student progress reports. A week after her students took one such test, Mason sits at a computer, flicking through screens of red and green charts. "Here, with this student, he missed all three on this one." Courtney Mason Her class had trouble with line graphs and story problems. So these are the focus of a 45 minute review session. She goes through one particularly tough one with her class. "Multi-step word problems, they sometimes just break my heart," Mason sighs to her students. As a class, they scored nine points below the district average on the math test. Mason hopes that won't be scrutinized too much. Many of them did better than on the first round back in September, but a few kids' scores plunged, including the boy at the whiteboard. But you wouldn't know that from the way he explains his answer. "I knew that 6 x 4 = 24, and I saw the 4 at the eight, so I realized that it was six." "I'm so proud of you," exclaims Mason. "You're doing that mental math! Fabulous!" The boy is quick with numbers, but Mason knows challenges outside of school are hurting his motivation. In the coming weeks, Mason will pull aside a few students at a time to go over the concepts they struggled with. The formatives are helpful at identifying those students, but she says you can only read so much into their results. "I don't agree with all testing, but you kind of have to deal with it," says Mason. "Unless the entire nation is going to stop doing tests, then there's no way to get around it." And at least for now that's not going to happen. The Obama administration is pushing tests as a way to gauge student progress. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and private groups like the Broad Foundation have praised CMS for testing the performance of both students and teachers. Mason supports the district's efforts to tie teacher pay to test scores, but only if the results are one of many measures used to judge how well teachers do their jobs.