Policy Position

Testing and Accountability

in Education


School accountability comes in two forms. Either parents keep schools accountable by “voting with their feet,” or states compel public school districts to administer standardized tests. As educational options increase, the value and necessity of testing decreases. Likewise, as long as states such as North Carolina maintain stringent limitations on parental choice, test scores remain their primary method of keeping schools accountable.

Beginning with the ABCs of Public Education in 1996 and continuing with the implementation of the READY accountability model in 2012, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction authored, field-tested, administered, and analyzed nearly all end-of-grade and end-of-course tests. During that time, state tests were subject to countless modifications, deletions, and additions. Some of these changes were for the better, but others were for the worse.

Indeed, many teachers and parents remain incredulous about the state accountability system. According to the 2016 Teacher Working Conditions Survey, for example, 57 percent of the over 101,000 teachers who responded to the survey did not believe that state-developed assessments accurately gauge students’ understanding of state learning standards. Amid widespread discontent with the state accountability program, elected officials have taken steps to improve North Carolina’s testing system.

Even the most promising efforts to transform the state accountability program, however, may not mitigate the use of excessive, duplicative, or poorly designed tests. That is because research suggests that school- and district-based testing mandates consume more time than tests required by the state or federal government. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for state legislators or federal bureaucrats to impose one-size-fits-all rules that govern decisions made at the school and district levels.

Key Facts

  • The federal government requires that the state administer and report results from end-of-grade tests in English and math for students in grades 3-8 and science tests for students in grades 5 and 8. High school students must take, at minimum, end-of-course English II, Math I, and Biology tests.
  • For state assessments, student test scores fall into one of five achievement levels. Levels 3, 4, and 5 meet the “on grade-level proficiency” standard.  Levels 4 and 5 meet the “career-and-college readiness” standard.
  • Although some students elected to take the SAT, all North Carolina students are required to take the ACT. In addition, selected career and technical education students who are in 12th grade will complete the WorkKeys.
  • In 2013, the N.C. General Assembly mandated that the state use test scores, academic growth measures, and other outcome measures to create a simple A-to-F performance grading system for all North Carolina public schools. Previous classifications of student performance on state tests were confusing to the public.
  • As a result of the work of the N.C. State Board of Education’s Task Force on Summative Assessment, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction currently oversees a pilot program that replaces end-of-grade tests with through-course/interim assessments.
  • North Carolina public schools also participate in the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The rigorous NAEP tests are administered infrequently; a representative sample of students is tested in mathematics and reading every two years, while science, history, civics, and geography tests are administered every four years.  Because of the nature of the sample, NAEP cannot provide data on individual school districts, only states.  In most cases, only fourth- and eighth-grade students are tested.


  1. Adopt an independent, field-tested, and credible national test of student performance. There are a number of norm-referenced tests available for students in grades K-12, including the Basic Achievement Skills Individual Screener (BASIS), Metropolitan Achievement Tests (MAT 8), and the Stanford Achievement Test Series, 10th Edition (Stanford 10).
  2. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction should sponsor a comprehensive study that attempts to discover the causes of the state’s dramatic increase in math achievement and relative stagnation of reading scores over the last decade. North Carolina’s public schools produced remarkable increases in fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading scores in the 1990s and early 2000s. Researchers should conduct a similar study to determine why the state’s graduation rate has been on the rise.
  3. The state should augment educational options for all families, thereby curtailing dependence on standardized tests and other measures of student achievement. Like testing, parental choice is a form of accountability.


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