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As state education officials consider changes to the state testing program, they will have to balance the need for accountability with the desire for autonomy.  Are they on the right track?

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Last year, the General Assembly created the N.C. State Board of Education Task Force on Summative Assessment.  The group began their review of the state’s testing program in October and will report their findings and recommendations to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee in July.

In December, the task force outlined a draft proposal that would radically change the way that the state administers standardized tests.  The plan has four parts.

  1. Four interim assessments administered online throughout the year for Math and English Language Arts/Reading
  2. Summative test administered for one grade each year. (For example, 5th grade in year 1, 4th grade in year 2, etc.)
  3. Pre‐assessment in grade 9 (ACT Explore); diagnostic assessment in grade 10 (ACT Plan); and college readiness assessment in grade 11 (ACT or similar national assessment aligned to standards)
  4. Career readiness determined by ACT WorkKeys

Few would object to parts 3 and 4 of the proposal.  Currently, high schools administer the ACT testing series to gauge students’ preparation for career and college.  These tests allow stakeholders to compare performance across states, meet statutory requirements for testing, and may be useful sources of information for high school teachers and college admissions officers.

Parts 1 and 2 of the proposal are radical departures from the current testing regime.  Elementary and middle schools would be required to administer four "interim" tests to students throughout the school year.  The interim tests would replace most annual or "summative" tests, known as end-of-grade (EOG) and end-of-course (EOC) assessments, administered under the state’s READY initiative.  Each year, one grade would have to take both interim and summative tests.

Many elementary and middle school students already take interim tests, but districts choose how to conduct these assessments.  There is no state mandate.  The purpose of interim tests used by districts is to provide information to teachers that they can use to improve classroom instruction and determine readiness for the state-administered EOG and EOC tests.  Under the proposed system, the state-mandated interim tests would be the means by which teachers assess the progress of student learning.  Taken together, they would also serve to determine grade-level proficiency and academic growth.

Task force members argue that this arrangement has two key advantages.  First, it reduces or eliminates certain tests.  Second, it provides teachers better and timelier information on student achievement.

The first claim is a curious one.  Eliminating one annual test in favor of four interim tests will not be perceived as "fewer tests" or "less testing" by those affected by the change.  The fact is that the state will require students to take four tests throughout the year, rather than one at the end of the school year.  For the average North Carolinian, it will not matter that the interim tests represent a fraction of the content of one summative test.  Critics will accuse proponents of increasing testing by adding three standardized assessments in English and math to the state testing requirements, and technically they will be correct.

Another concern is the interim tests themselves.  I have doubts about whether interim tests alone provide parents and taxpayers accurate, meaningful, and comprehensible measures of student achievement and growth.  Perhaps there is a body of empirical evidence that will assuage my concerns.

I also question whether interim assessments actually provide beneficial and actionable information to public school teachers and administrators.  A recent randomized controlled study, considered by most to be the "gold standard" in social science research, questioned the use of interim tests in this regard. 

In "The Impact of Indiana’s System of Interim Assessments on Mathematics and Reading Achievement," a massive, well-designed study that included over 19,000 participants in both math and reading groups, researchers from Michigan State University and the American Institutes of Research randomly assigned 59 elementary and middle schools to two groups.  One group of 35 "treatment" schools would receive interim tests aligned to two tests, the nationally-normed TerraNova assessments and the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress–Plus (ISTEP+).  A group of 24 "control" schools did not receive the interim tests but were eligible to receive them in subsequent years. 

Researchers concluded that "the treatment effect was positive but not consistently significant across all grades (K–8)."  In fact, the research literature, which admittedly is limited, has been consistent about only one thing — schools that used interim assessments documented inconsistent and often insignificant gains across grades and subjects.

The Task Force on Summative Assessment is far from settling on final recommendations to present to the N.C. General Assembly.  And the legislature has no obligation to implement any of the task force recommendations.  Regardless of the outcome, the task force is asking the right questions and spurring a debate that is several years overdue.

Facts and Stats

According to a report published by the Education Commission of the States:

  • 12 states and Washington, D.C. are administering Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessments in some capacity. All 12 states will test students in grades 3 through 8, and 11 states will administer high school tests
  • 18 states are administering Smarter Balanced [Assessment Consortium] assessments. All 18 will test students in grades 3 through 8, and 15 states will administer high school tests
  • 20 states, including North Carolina, either never joined or have left the [PARCC or Smarter Balanced] consortia entirely and are choosing to use state-developed assessments
  • 2 states (Massachusetts and Missouri) will administer a combination of consortium and state-developed assessments

Source: Tonette Salazar, "50 Ways to Test: A look at state summative assessments in 2014-15," Education Commission of the States, November 18, 2014.

Acronym of the Week

STAR — Standardized Testing and Reporting

Quote of the Week

"Now, I know some people quarrel with testing.  Some say you ought not to measure because it causes too much stress.  Others say we end up "teaching the test" at the expense of other parts of the curriculum.  Still others say the tests aren’t fair because they aren’t perfect.  Well, the tests aren’t perfect; we recognize their limitations and we must improve them every year.  But the real danger comes if we don’t do the testing.  Without tests, we have no way of knowing which students and which schools are succeeding — and which need additional help.  We have historically had a system in which students weren’t measured and held accountable.  And we know that large numbers of students failed to learn.  They slipped through the cracks, dropped out, and faced a limited future.

We as a society failed them.  We didn’t measure and report.  We weren’t candid about how things were going.  We didn’t change the situation.  That’s dishonest, and it’s wrong."

– James B. Hunt, Jr., First in America: An Education Governor Challenges North Carolina, First in America Foundation, January 2001, p. 55.

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