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New NC education plan remains focused on standardized tests

Despite pledges to try to cut back on high-stakes standardized testing, North Carolina schools will continue to largely be evaluated based on how well their students perform on state exams.

State education leaders have talked for nearly two years about taking advantage of the flexibility in the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to reduce the focus placed on using tests to hold schools accountable for how they educate their students. Critics of the new plan that the State Board of Education will vote on Thursday say it wastes the opportunity North Carolina had to reduce the emphasis on testing.

“What we’re getting is more of the same, the same thing we’ve been doing for decades,” Bobbie Cavnar, the outgoing teacher adviser to the board, said last month. “We’re doubling down on test scores. This is our chance to be innovative.”

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People are pointing fingers as to why things aren’t changing.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the state board, said their hands were tied by state lawmakers, who overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto to pass into law a bill that requires what the state should include in the ESSA plan. State lawmakers wanted to keep their controversial A-F school grading system, so they modified it to make it comply with Every Student Succeeds.

The A-F grading system gives schools a letter grade largely based on how many of their students pass state exams. Supporters say the grades make it easier for families to see how schools are faring, while critics say it stigmatizes high-poverty schools that are more likely to have lower test scores.

“The accountability has been written into statute, so we’re going to have to continue with testing,” Cobey said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t modify it over time. We’ve been trying to make modifications over the last several years.”

State Supt. Mark Johnson had campaigned on a “too much testing” theme in 2016, saying the state could take advantage of the flexibility given in ESSA to scale things back. In an interview Friday, Johnson downplayed the significance of the new plan, saying it’s a living document that can be changed over time.

“A lot of the ESSA plan is just a way to report data to the federal government,” Johnson said in an interview Friday. “The intended audience is the bureaucrats at the Department of Education.”

High-stakes testing ramped up under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the predecessor of Every Student Succeeds.

No Child Left Behind helped put a focus on closing achievement gaps by making schools accountable for raising the performance of all student groups. Schools that didn’t improve faced punishments such as having to let students transfer out and even potentially being closed.

Critics, including some parents and teachers, said the focus on exam results led to an over-emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests.

Every Student Succeeds removes the punishments of schools. The new law still requires states to administer standardized tests, but it gives them more flexibility to report other measures, such as absence rates, for holding the schools accountable.

Multiple drafts have been submitted to the state board to try to meet the Sept. 18 deadline for submitting a plan to the U.S. Department of Education. Board members and advisers expressed their frustration at the plan at the August meeting, saying it represented the status quo.

“The fact that the plan really doubled down on testing was very disheartening,” Lisa Godwin, the state board’s teacher adviser, said at the meeting. “I believe that if it goes forward as is, the school community and all of its stakeholders are going to feel that that is how we view education, that it is all about high-stakes testing.”

Cooper recently chimed in with his own concerns about the draft state plan.

“The accountability portion of the plan focuses almost exclusively on standardized testing where it should include other measures as well,” Cooper wrote in his response. “ESSA provides an opportunity for states to move beyond an accountability system driven by standardized testing and to include additional measures of school quality and student success.”

Johnson said DPI staff worked tirelessly throughout August to address the concerns raised. For instance, he said the new plan talks about how the state can address other measures of school performance, such as chronic absenteeism, in the School Report Cards and the state board’s strategic plan.

Johnson said that if the state follows up on the use of personalized learning, which is included in the ESSA plan, that it will hopefully reduce the amount of testing over time.

“I will proudly sign my name to this plan,” Johnson said. “It has the vision statement that we will follow for the next 10 years to transform education in North Carolina.”

Terry Stoops, vice president for research for the John Locke Foundation, said critics of the ESSA plan have lost sight that its true purpose was to ensure quick federal approval to make sure North Carolina continued to get federal education money.

“Any sort of federal educational initiative is not going to be transformative,” he said. “This is not any different. Any idea that North Carolina was going to craft an ESSA plan that was radically going to transform education was silly.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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