Testing, charter schools, and credibility

By: - January 9, 2008 5:38 pm

A group of state lawmakers heard reports Wednesday from Blue Ribbon Commissions on two controversial issues in public education, standardized testing and charter schools. The merits of the recommendations were as starkly different as the processes the two commissions used to come up with them.

The testing commission heard 32 formal presentations from education policy groups across the ideological spectrum and from students, teachers, parents, and testing experts.

The recommendations presented by committee chair Dr. Sam Houston Wednesday reflected that diversity of public input, though there seemed to be a consensus on several major points about the testing program, the ABCs of Public Education.

The commission found that the ABCs do not ensure that students are ready for college or the job market and that too much time is spent on standardized tests without useful feedback that teachers can use to help students.   

Other findings were that the current testing regime doesn’t improve high school graduation rates or reduce the remediation needed when students enter a university or community college.

That’s quite an indictment of a standardized testing program that began with much fanfare in 1995 as part of an effort to create more accountability for public schools. At its inception, the ABCs program was designed to use standardized tests to identify students who were struggling and provide additional services to help the students catch up.

Those services were never adequately funded and plans to use the tests as a condition for student promotion were never fully implemented. The tests have been changed repeatedly over the years, the passing scores adjusted and the difficulty manipulated.

More tests were added as part of the ABCs and then federal government began emphasizing testing too, prompting more protests from parents and teachers saying that testing and preparing for tests was overwhelming classroom instruction.  

Houston told lawmakers much the same thing. The Commission made 27 recommendations, ranging from a reduction in the number of tests, a moratorium on changes in the public school curriculum, and public release of the tests to end what Houston called “the public veil of secrecy” around the testing program.

State Board Chair Howard Lee bristled at the unspoken but inescapable conclusion in the Commission’s report that the ABCs program is a mess, pointing out that other states see North Carolina as a leader and saying that he was not “unhappy with where are and what we are doing.”

Lee may not be unhappy, but the Commission he appointed is clearly not thrilled with the ABCs, finally providing an official confirmation of what parents and teachers have been insisting for years.  Let’s hope that lawmakers were listening.

Houston was followed at the podium by the Chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Charter Schools, Michael Fedewa, who presided over a panel that used a much different approach in its work to evaluate state charter school policy.

Fedewa said the Commission heard from “multiple constituencies”, a blatant distortion of the committee proceedings. Members of the public were not allowed to address the Commission and there was virtually no discussion of well-publicized national and state reports critical of charter schools.

The Commission was guided in its work by a consultant with close ties to charter schools and the committee’s membership was heavily stacked with strong supporters of the schools. 

Fedewa was also less than forthcoming as he presented the Commission’s most controversial recommendation, a proposal to significantly raise the current charter school cap of 100.

He said the Commission recommended raising the cap by six schools a year and that high-performing schools would not be counted against the cap. Neither would an application for a charter school in a county without one.

Fedewa said that means the increase in the number of schools could range from 6 to 8 a year, which is absurdly low and he knows it.  At the commission’s last meeting, one member point out that some years as many as 30 schools could be considered high performing. That means the cap could increase by 36 or more in one year.

The Commission also recommends that charter schools share in lottery proceeds and no longer be required to reflect the racial diversity of their community, opening the door to more segregation. Several schools currently appear to be violation of that law.

Lee said it’s likely that that the recommendations won’t be presented to lawmakers until 2009. That leaves plenty of time to develop the desperately needed overhaul of the standardized testing system and hold the open, thorough debate on charter schools that the Blue Ribbon Commission refused to have.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066