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Critics pounce on North Carolina’s new plan for high-stakes testing

Critics are swarming around North Carolina’s draft plan for complying with the nation’s new education law, The News & Observer reports.

The controversy centers chiefly around standardized testing, following years of complaints from education reformers of “over-testing” in K-12 schools.

Granted greater flexibility over accountability measures in the new Every Student Succeeds Plan (ESSA)—Congress’ 2015 rewrite of federal education law—many figured North Carolina leaders would take advantage by trimming schools’ reliance on high-stakes testing.

But as The News & Observer‘s T. Keung Hui notes, many are disappointed by the results, but the state board chair says the blame may lie with the N.C. General Assembly.

From The N&O:

State education leaders have talked for nearly two years about taking advantage of the flexibility in the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to reduce the focus placed on using tests to hold schools accountable for how they educate their students. Critics of the new plan that the State Board of Education will vote on Thursday say it wastes the opportunity North Carolina had to reduce the emphasis on testing.

“What we’re getting is more of the same, the same thing we’ve been doing for decades,” Bobbie Cavnar, the outgoing teacher adviser to the board, said last month. “We’re doubling down on test scores. This is our chance to be innovative.”

People are pointing fingers as to why things aren’t changing.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the state board, said their hands were tied by state lawmakers, who overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto to pass into law a bill that requires what the state should include in the ESSA plan. State lawmakers wanted to keep their controversial A-F school grading system, so they modified it to make it comply with Every Student Succeeds.

The A-F grading system gives schools a letter grade largely based on how many of their students pass state exams. Supporters say the grades make it easier for families to see how schools are faring, while critics say it stigmatizes high-poverty schools that are more likely to have lower test scores.

“The accountability has been written into statute, so we’re going to have to continue with testing,” Cobey said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t modify it over time. We’ve been trying to make modifications over the last several years.”

Education advocates have been seeking reforms to the nation’s high-stakes testing system for more than a decade, since 2001’s federal No Child Left Behind law dramatically expanded the role of standardized exams as an accountability tool.

And, as Policy Watch noted in January, testing played a prominent role in new Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson’s campaign last year.

That said, many cautioned against expecting too much from this year’s draft plan. And at least one top official in the Department of Public Instruction suggested in January that the testing flexibility granted by ESSA was at least partly overblown.

From our January report:

However, as Lou Fabrizio, director of data research and federal policy for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction points out, ESSA, while it grants states additional powers to assess their accountability measures, mostly retains the unpopular testing requirements of NCLB.

That includes annual end-of-grade testing in English and math for grades 3-8, as well as at least one examination each in math, science and language arts in high school.

That said, Fabrizio notes the new federal law extends some sweeteners to states weary of the testing requirements. States will have broader powers to determine what they do with those testing results.

And federal officials are also offering up funding for states to conduct testing audits.

“The assumption, and it’s probably a very accurate assumption, is that if school systems and states did that analysis, they may find out that a lot of the testing they are doing is not something the federal government requires,” said Fabrizio.

North Carolina’s testing, in addition to offering the federally-mandated examinations, also includes a state-ordered, third-grade reading test at the beginning of the year to pinpoint students’ needs. Schools also push ACT examinations to test college readiness in grades 10 and 11, both of which could be deemed unnecessary by state leaders.

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Despite the criticisms, Tuesday’s N&O report indicated the draft plan still has the support of Johnson.

State Supt. Mark Johnson had campaigned on a “too much testing” theme in 2016, saying the state could take advantage of the flexibility given in ESSA to scale things back. In an interview Friday, Johnson downplayed the significance of the new plan, saying it’s a living document that can be changed over time.

“A lot of the ESSA plan is just a way to report data to the federal government,” Johnson said in an interview Friday. “The intended audience is the bureaucrats at the Department of Education.”

North Carolina board members will have little time to weigh the issue. The state has until Sept. 18 to submit its plan to the U.S. Department of Education.

State board members are expected to consider the plan during their Wednesday and Thursday meetings.

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