Testing debate is front and center again as state officials wrestle with new federal education law

By: - September 7, 2017 5:30 am

A draft plan for meeting the nation’s new federal education law has some on North Carolina’s top school board expressing frustration this week, particularly when it comes to measuring schools’ performance.

To grow the elephant, you don’t weigh it, you feed it,” Lisa Godwin, teacher advisor to the State Board of Education, complained Wednesday. “I do feel like we’re weighing the elephant.”

Godwin was one of several who blasted the state’s continued emphasis on standardized testing Wednesday, one day before members of the State Board of Education were expected to take an up or down vote on a substantive plan for K-12 schooling required under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the nation’s overarching public education law.

North Carolina leaders hope to turn over their ESSA proposal to federal education officials in the U.S. Department of Education by September 18, after which the administration will have up to 120 days to approve or deny.

Its tenets would go into place for the 2018-2019 school year, although multiple officials emphasized that state leaders will still be able to propose changes to their plan even after it’s approved by federal leaders.

As expected, testing was a central point of contention for multiple board members Wednesday. Godwin, a teacher in Onslow County, said classroom educators have been overwhelmed by a deluge of testing requirements in recent years, forcing them to focus extensively on meeting standardized testing demands.

Yes, teachers are struggling,” added Godwin. “But I don’t think it’s that they don’t know how to teach reading. I think it’s they don’t have the time to teach reading.”

Others questioned whether North Carolina’s public school funding was enough to allow any plan that would meet the needs of students, particularly those hailing from low-income locales.

I don’t think we’re just weighing the elephant,” said board member Eric Davis. “I think we’re starving the elephant, and we need to start feeding, in a greater way, our public school students. It’s going to take more funding. That won’t solve all the problems, but it’s going to take a lot more from North Carolina if we want to see more from our students.”

Funding approved by the N.C. General Assembly has been a frequent talking point among North Carolina school advocates in recent years. A national report this spring estimated the state’s per-pupil spending would fall to a ranking of 43rd in the nation this year.

Board members did not acknowledge that report Wednesday, buts its findings seem to loom large as North Carolina public school leaders ready an all-encompassing plan for education that takes on a comprehensive system of assessing schools’ and students’ performance.

School advocates have long clamored for a reduced emphasis on “high-stakes” testing since 2001’s federal education law, “No Child Left Behind,” dramatically expanded a system of school accountability that some criticized for stigmatizing struggling schools, which tend to be located in high-poverty districts.

ESSA figures to allow states greater flexibility in defining their accountability standards, although the plan likely to be passed Thursday continues numerous tests ordered by state lawmakers.

In a News & Observer report Tuesday, state board Chairman Bill Cobey blamed the General Assembly, arguing that the state’s schools were hamstrung by legislative testing mandates surrounding a school grading system this year.

On Wednesday, the state board’s vice chairman, A.L. “Buddy” Collins, seemed particularly miffed, criticizing state testing requirements that he says double-down on “failed policies.”

I think the test scores that we will be reviewing will be an adequate representation that there is something very seriously wrong with our accountability model in the way that we use accountability to inform instruction,” said Collins.

Collins added that he believes the state model is “systematically holding disadvantaged students back.”

Public school advocates have long argued North Carolina’s model should focus more on student improvement rather than test scores, so as not to ostracize high-needs districts and schools, although GOP state lawmakers counter that the current system demands accountability from long-failing schools.

Not everyone who spoke Wednesday was rankled by the draft plan. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, who criticized “over-testing” often during his campaign last year, indicated broad support for the overall proposal, while acknowledging this week that the state would have the leeway for pending reforms.

A lot of people spent a lot of time working on this last month,” said Johnson. “This was really great proof that things can be done in a constructive manner and really address concerns.”

However, board member Wayne McDevitt said the state must find a way to incentivize districts that adopt practices exceeding those included in the state’s overall plan.

Budget cuts matter,” said McDevitt. “Class sizes matter. All of those affect this larger picture. I think we’ve got to realize that again, if we do nothing but this, we’re going to be disappointed.”

North Carolina’s ESSA plan will enter a process that has seen a rocky start under the leadership of new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos’ agency was lambasted this year for its feedback to states turning in their plans, although the department has reportedly modified its approach to speed the approval process.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.