Latest school testing proposals are emblematic of NC’s failed public ed policies

By: - March 26, 2019 5:05 am

There’s an old adage – often attributed to Albert Einstein and/or Mark Twain – that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Neither Einstein nor Twain ever had occasion to review the effectiveness of North Carolina’s K-12 education policy, but it seems likely that if the two great men could be transported forward in time to the modern era to render such an assessment, each would nod, smile wistfully, and say “I told you so.”

The latest compelling indicator of this sobering reality: the recent spate of proposals from state lawmakers to overhaul both the state’s K-12 testing regimen and the system of letter “performance” grades handed out to individual schools.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported last week, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a teacher from Wilkes County, has introduced a bill that would do away with numerous tests that are inflicted on North Carolina students and teachers each year.

Meanwhile, as Greg Childress of Policy Watch reported last week, the General Assembly is also considering legislation to alter how school “performance grades” are handed out by giving more weight to student growth and less weight to “achievement” – that is, standardized test results.

This is not to imply that either of these proposals is a bad idea. It’s been clear for decades that the state has gone way overboard when it comes to testing – especially with respect to the volume of it and the stakes that are attached to it for kids and schools.

No, the problem here has to do with the way policymakers have allowed themselves to become obsessed with and distracted by the testing issue in recent years and view it as a genuine solution to what ails our schools.

Conservatives may not want to remember it today, but the mad rush to enact all sorts of new state tests back in the latter part of the 20th Century was driven in large part by demands from Republicans and “business Democrats” for “accountability” in public education. These conservative politicians, corporate lobbyists and think tankers were averse to the idea of addressing the elephant in the room when it came to public schools (i.e. the chronic and debilitating lack of resources – particularly for low-wealth areas) and so they turned to all manner of on-the-cheap solutions that would supposedly push and incentivize students, teachers and schools to try harder and perform better with the meager resources available.

Hence the drive to use the “genius” of “market forces” through gimmicks like “school choice,” charter schools and vouchers that would supposedly spur schools to “compete” for students by raising their performance levels (something that came to be measured by – you guessed it – standardized test results). Hence the push to link teacher and principal pay to test scores. Hence also the obsession with high-stakes testing for kids of the kind that is a part of Sen. Phil Berger’s failed “Read to Achieve” law.

Now, of course, after decades of experimenting, it’s clear that the push to, in effect, squeeze and/or bludgeon better education results out of our public schools by exposing low scores and grades and, in effect, shaming various actors into performing better hasn’t worked. Poor kids still attend disproportionately underfunded and segregated schools and (surprise!) continue to struggle. Well-off kids still attend better-funded (and often segregated) schools and generally do better.

And so it is that we find ourselves in a situation in which even conservative politicians like Rep. Elmore and his fellow Republican House members and conservative state Superintendent Mark Johnson are making a push to reduce the state’s oppressive testing load. The House Education Committee that Elmore co-chairs is scheduled to take up his bill today and if the proposal becomes law, the number of tests the state implements will be greatly reduced.

That’s fine, of course, as far as it goes. As Keith Poston of the Public School Forum insightfully told the N&O, “It’s time to take a step and right-size them and strike a proper balance between accountability and what we believe is rampant over-testing, particularly high-stakes testing that we think is stressful for students and of questionable value for teachers.” Poston might have added that we would also do well to roll back the similarly ineffective experiments with vouchers and charters.

When it comes to really addressing what ails our public schools, however, law and policy makers should be under no illusion that testing reform represents any kind of real or comprehensive solution. Welcome as these proposed changes are, ultimately, they amount to little more than tinkering around the edges of a vastly larger issue.

The bottom line: Unless and until state leaders get serious – really serious – about addressing the persistent and destructive funding shortages that plague public education and leave numerous important budget categories well below where they were a decade ago, it won’t be long before the demands for accountability and competition creep back into the debate and the whole testing policy roller-coaster ride starts all over again.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.