There's a new N.C. twist to testing this year: When students finish early, they can read books or magazines until the whole class is done. State Superintendent June Atkinson sent a memo to superintendents this week reminding them of the change.
One might wonder why the state's top educator would bother calling attention to a relatively minor change buried deep in the state's 158-page testing manual. The answer: It's part of a complex negotiation between state officials and parents who plan to refuse to let their kids take exams.
As I reported earlier, Deputy Superintendent Rebecca Garland wants to make it clear that North Carolina doesn't consider testing optional. Parents may want to protest what they view as misuse of testing to rate teachers and schools, but kids who refuse to answer questions will get a zero, which could drop their class grade and bring other consequences.
After Garland's "no opt-out" memo went out, parents with Mecklenburg ACTS met with Atkinson to argue that even if the kids get zeroes, they shouldn't be forced to "sit and stare" if they're protesting. The group suggested that Atkinson provide guidelines that note state disapproval of opting out but offer districts "child-centered" ways to handle refusals.
The message that went out doesn't specifically address test protesters, but it's understood that some of the kids will be finishing very early.
"This is a good thing not just for students who are refusing the test, but for those who finish the tests early. Previously, they had also been forced to sit and stare, sometimes for a couple of hours," says Pamela Grundy, one of the organizers of the opt-out push.
|Duncan at EWA|
The uses and misuses of testing were a big topic there. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan emphasized the importance of setting high standards and using rigorous tests to measure student progress: "We had so many states that dummied down standards to make politicians look good." The Obama administration's Race to the Top grants have pushed the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, but he acknowledged that some states have gone overboard on testing.
"Where there's too much, we need to have the honest conversation and scale it back," Duncan said, without citing which states he referred to.
Tennessee officials were quick to credit tougher tests with the state's significant math gains on recent "nation's report card" tests. Several speakers, including Gov. Bill Haslam, noted that the state went from a state testing system that labeled 90 percent of eighth-graders proficient in math, earning the state an F in truth in advertising from the national Chamber of Commerce, to one that more accurately reflects a bleaker reality.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said misuse of student scores to create "value-added" ratings of teachers has created rebellion among teachers and families. "Teachers are not opposed to tests," he said. "We invented them."
Tommy Bice, Alabama's state superintendent, talked about his state's rollout of a testing system for grades 3-12 based on the ACT. The series of exams measure everything from basic reading and math skills to college and work readiness. But Bice said Alabama has made a decision that sets it apart from many states: It uses the scores only to shape instruction, not to rate schools, teachers or even students.
"Once we begin to use this powerful assessment tool for something other than what it was designed for," he said, "it becomes something else."