NC Superintendent’s testing changes miss the point. The problem is in the stakes.

*note: This article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer

This week I administered a long, multiple choice standardized reading test in my 7th grade Language Arts classes.  It was the second of three such assessments throughout the year which are intended to measure student growth before the End Of Grade test in May.  As usual, student reactions ranged from debilitating levels of anxiety to a profound lack of engagement–I had to wake up one student three times during the test.  In general, it was the exact opposite of how I want evidence of learning in my classroom to look.

In the middle of the test, an email from NC Superintendent Mark Johnson announcing changes in high-stakes standardized testing practices hit my inbox.  In the message, Johnson spoke of the harmful stress caused by our current assessment approach and the counterproductive testing culture that has developed over the last decade.  He went on to list a number of changes which will be rolled out this school year:

  • Reducing the number of questions on tests
  • Reducing the time students must sit for tests
  • Changing testing policies to reduce stress at schools around testing time
    • eliminating the restriction that prevented teachers from reviewing test-taking strategies with students before tests
    • eliminating the requirement to have proctors, and more. (My time as a volunteer proctor last school year was a critical firsthand experience.)
  • Working with local leaders to reduce the number of tests
  • Pushing to eliminate tests not required by Washington, D.C.
  • Giving students other ways to show progress if they have a bad test day
  • Using the appropriate amount of technology as a tool for students and teachers to personalize learning and eliminate tests

Oddly, the NC Department of Public Instruction’s official testing program update page contains no mention of the changes whatsoever (although Johnson’s campaign website posted a video of him talking about the topic on Spectrum News).  In a Raleigh News and Observer piece entitled “Testing in NC schools could get less stressful,” DPI spokesman Drew Elliot offered a little more detail, explaining that EOG tests would get shorter, lasting two hours instead of three, and that students may be permitted to leave the room once they’ve completed their test.  

It’s important for us to have conversations about the negative impact our testing culture has on children, and I appreciate the fact that those conversations have begun.  However, the changes proposed by Superintendent Johnson largely ignore the real problem. The problem is in the stakes.

North Carolina’s standardized testing culture is driven by state policies enacted under the Republican supermajority which award letter grades to schools based on scores, determine principal salaries and sizeable teacher bonuses through test results, and retain third graders who can’t pass the test (nearly 20,000 last year).  It’s rooted in federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a multiple choice test score.  

These policies result in tremendous pressure on school leaders and classroom teachers.  That pressure is passed on to students in the form of developmentally inappropriate, dull and repetitive learning activities in which the real goal is not authentic learning but getting the desired score.  

This year I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact of our testing culture on my third grade daughter.  Too much of her class time is taken up by long multiple choice assessments. Her anxiety is more than any eight year old should be asked to shoulder, and opportunities for exploring her own interests and using her imagination–the very things that can help schools to create lifelong learners–are few and far between.  I know she is in for a long spring of test prep with her first End Of Grade tests on the horizon. How much of a difference does it really make if that test lasts two hours instead of three?

If our state superintendent is serious about changing our harmful testing culture, he must press state legislators for changes in the policies that are actually causing that culture.  He needs to advocate for policies which will afford teachers the time and trust to implement frequent, low-stakes activities for measuring student learning in ways that are healthy and motivational.  Until Mark Johnson becomes willing to lower the stakes, what he calls “revolutionary” reforms will, in reality, change very little for our teachers and students.

6 thoughts on “NC Superintendent’s testing changes miss the point. The problem is in the stakes.

  1. Hi there,
    Thank you for your input on the EOG’s. As a mother of two (5th grader and Freshman) I dread the EOG’s all year long bc of the anxiety they both feel – all of us as a family feels. It’s terrible. For my 5th grader who has anxiety normally with school, if she does not pass the EOG’s will she not be promoted to middle school?

    • Hi Stephanie,

      In my experience, promotion decisions are based on a range of data points (grades, formative test results throughout the year, teacher observations, etc.) and not just one test result. It’s really unfortunate our system creates this kind of pressure on our students. I have a 3rd grader who is going through the same thing and asked me last week the same question you’re asking about your 5th grader.

    • So when does a child learn how to cope with test anxiety. Maybe right before the SAT or maybe right before the GRE or maybe the LSAT. You as a parent need to ensure that during the year your child has done their work and knows it cold. Students who know the work never worry about the test, it’s just another day. How would the State determine how the student population is progressing if not for a Statewide end of year test? How would the State determine the effectiveness of the curriculum in place? How is anyone going to determine the overall performance of a particular school?

  2. I am a third grade teacher and EXTREMELY against the EOG (especially the ELA one) we give to the students. Having the inclusion class, I already have multiple students who are being asked to read passages that we know are clearly above their level. On top of that, students who are “on the cusp” are also usually in my classroom. These are the students who are making growth and starting to love to read throughout the year, but they do NOT have the stamina to read 6 passages they have no interest in whatsoever and answer 52 questions for 3 hours.

    I taught in Massachusetts for 4 years. You often hear how it is one of the best states for education. But have you ever looked at their end-of-grade tests (MCAS)? They are way shorter and questions for third graders are much more direct. I wonder if my students would pass that test.

  3. I wish the EOG’s were done away with completely it only causes students more stress and anxiety. No child should have to go through that. It causes them not to even want to read or even go to school. To me it doesn’t show if a child will attend a college are not. If that student does well though the year that’s what should really matter. Stop hurting our children and let them have a happy childhood.

    • Sadly you are completely wrong on whether a child attends a college or not. Every worthy College will ask for the child’s transcript, which will include grades and probably the child’s rank in their class. Try to gain admission to a top 50 school by telling them you really didn’t care about your grades and those test were really not an indication of who you really are.

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