This week Governor Roy Cooper signed a law that will eliminate some of North Carolina’s high school exams – and may force Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to make a tough decision.
The idea that schools give too many standardized tests has widespread support these days.
"I feel like so many of our kids are just drilled constantly in order to pass tests that it often takes away the enjoyment of learning," says Justin Perry, a CMS parent who advocates for less testing.
"It just creates an environment that is less about teaching and more sometimes about beating a test," Perry adds.
State Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, says he hears that a lot.
"All of those questions have come to a head in the past couple of years, so the General Assembly, we felt like we needed to address it," Elmore says.
Elmore says the state keeps piling on tests, most of them designed to collect data about the adults who are paid to educate kids. And the question isn't abstract for Elmore. He's also a public school parent … and teacher.
"And yes," he says, "I personally feel like there is too much standardized testing in the schools right now."
In April, Senate education leaders introduced a bill to reduce testing in public schools. After it passed the Senate, the House approved changes that would have really upended the way North Carolina’s school accountability program works.
Here’s an important point to bear in mind: When teachers give tests, they’re trying to see what their kids know. When the state gives tests, the students bubble in the answers but the teachers are the ones being graded.
The bill that passed the House in July would have eliminated the End of Grade reading, math and science exams given in grades 3 to 8, and the End of Course exams given in high school. Those are the tests the state uses to generate the A-to-F school letter grades that were posted this week.
Elmore says the House didn’t want to throw out school performance grades, but did want to reshape the tests. In elementary and middle schools, three shorter tests would have replaced the one long End of Grade exam.
In high school, he says, the EOCs would have gone away, with ACT results used instead to rate high schools.
Adam Tyner, a researcher who recently released a study on End of Course exams, says that might have been a bad move. Tyner works for the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. What’s going on in North Carolina is playing out across the country, he says, as officials react to a backlash against overtesting.
Tyner says North Carolina and New York have done high school testing the right way. Unlike other states, he says, they avoided the graduation exams that test basic skills and sometimes push the weakest students to drop out.
The End of Course exams test higher-level material. And there’s another benefit, Tyner says.
"Right now the End of Course exams are integrated into students’ final grades," he says, "and so that gives them a good stake in not only learning the content but also trying their hardest on the test."
All North Carolina 11th-graders take the ACT, a college-readiness exam that covers English, reading, math and science. Their scores don’t affect their own class grades, but are a factor in the state’s rating of their schools.
"I think it’s a valid concern that you don’t have any stakes for the students, and if you have a lot of students who aren’t going to go to college, why would you hold the teachers accountable for that measure when the students maybe have no reason to try their hardest," Tyner says.
A legislative committee charged with crafting a compromise bill the House and Senate could agree on preserved the End of Grade and End of Course exams. The bill that passed – and got the governor’s signature this week – does eliminate state final exams.
Those are given in all high school courses except the four math, English and science classes that have EOCs. They were created to give policymakers data on teacher effectiveness.
Erlene Lyde, a West Charlotte High chemistry teacher, says good riddance to state finals. She says teachers have to spend class time preparing for exams she doesn’t consider helpful – time she’d rather spend doing chemistry labs.
"It is an absolutely good move," Lyde says. "It became a little bit ridiculous that we were spending more time preparing for tests than we were really teaching kids."
Esi Bonney, a senior at Charlotte’s Hawthorne High, says she’d rather spend her class time on work that prepares her for college.
"Since we already take tests in the classroom throughout the school year, I think that could supplement us from not needing to take North Carolina final exams," Bonney says.
The testing bill also brings a change in graduation projects. Those projects require students to do research and present their findings to a panel. Proponents say that’s better preparation for college or careers than taking a multiple-choice test.
But the state stopped requiring graduation projects years ago. Elmore, the House education co-chair, says only a handful of districts kept at it. One of them is CMS.
The House wanted to ban graduation projects, but the Senate didn’t agree. Instead, the compromise bill says any district that requires graduation projects must reimburse low-income students up to $75.
"The major concern we’ve had is for kids that are in poverty," Elmore says. "Basically, you’re requiring them to do something on their own time, outside of the school hours, and pay for it, to present to be able to get a high school diploma."
The state isn’t providing any money for reimbursements; that has to come from county money.
CMS wouldn’t answer questions about potential costs. But the district has about 10,000 seniors a year, and roughly half the students come from economically disadvantaged homes. So CMS could be looking at about $375,000 a year.
The reimbursement requirement kicks in immediately. The state finals won’t be eliminated until the next school year.
And the state will continue exploring alternatives to big year-end exams. In other words, Elmore says, this year’s bill doesn’t resolve the debate over testing kids and grading teachers. Instead, it’s more of a starting point.