May 15, 2013

Click here to view and here to listen to Dr. Terry Stoops discussing this Spotlight report.

RALEIGH — Legislators and the State Board of Education should take steps to ensure North Carolina’s public school testing program places greater emphasis on English grammar, spelling, mechanics, and usage. That’s a key recommendation in a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

JLF’s top education expert offers that advice as policymakers address concerns about the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

“Withdrawal from the Common Core is the preferable course of action, but that step does not address an immediate problem with tests North Carolina public school students are taking today,” said report author Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Research and Education Studies. “Tests in use at least through the next school year include no stand-alone questions about English-language grammar, spelling, parts of speech, and the like. Because of that omission, teachers now have a disincentive to teach grammar and usage.”

Stoops investigates several related issues in the new report: problems with existing state tests, potential changes tied to implementation of Common Core standards, and the shift from fiction to “informational texts” in teaching reading comprehension. Each area raises red flags, he said.

Despite recent incremental improvement, North Carolina’s public school students continue to fare poorly in reading tests, Stoops said. “The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 26 states had significantly higher eighth-grade reading scores than North Carolina,” he said. “Only 10 states and the District of Columbia had significantly lower scores.”

State education leaders have recognized the state’s “inadequate” reading instruction, Stoops said. The superintendent of public instruction has touted new Common Core standards as a tool to help improve student performance. “While proponents promise new Common Core standards will reintroduce fundamental skills and concepts into classroom instruction, others are skeptical that Common Core will live up to these lofty promises.”

Two federally funded testing groups will roll out tests in 2014-15 for Common Core states like North Carolina. In the meantime, state-developed tests based on Common Core serve as “placeholders,” Stoops said.

Earlier this year, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction released sample Common Core-based tests. Those samples raise troubling questions, Stoops said.

First, roughly 80 percent of the questions in English language-arts tests focus on reading comprehension, while 20 percent are classified as language questions, Stoops said. “That alone is worrisome,” he said. “It is even more alarming that the tests include no English-language grammar, spelling, mechanics, and usage questions.”

Those priorities appear to reflect preferences of test writers and developers rather than the Common Core standards, Stoops said. “Common Core English standards clearly require teachers to teach grammar and usage,” he said. “One guide to Common Core refers to a ‘revitalized emphasis’ on grammar.”

The exclusion of grammar, spelling, mechanics, and usage questions from North Carolina’s state-based tests means bad news for students, Stoops said. “These students may struggle to develop sound writing skills and habits as a result.”

Common Core itself deserves blame for a disturbing shift in reading comprehension teaching, Stoops said. “Traditionally, English teachers spent considerably more time on analysis of fiction, using classical and contemporary literary works,” Stoops explained. “Common Core requires teachers to increase use of so-called ‘informational texts’ — biographies, books about history or science, technical texts such as directions and forms, even information displayed in graphs or charts.”

State education officials promise a 50-50 balance between informational and literary text, but the recently released sample tests “clearly favor” informational texts, Stoops said. “North Carolina’s Common Core-based tests measure students’ understanding of nonfiction writing at the expense of literary texts.”

Stoops debunks two reasons Common Core proponents cite for increased use of informational texts.

“First, proponents believe there will be more opportunities for interdisciplinary instruction in history, science, or other subjects,” he said. “But English teachers with no expertise in those other subject areas might be unable to explain the information in the text adequately or connect it to current or past coursework in the subject area. This defeats the purpose of incorporating the text in the first place.”

Second, there is little evidence to support arguments that the shift toward nonfiction will produce more “career and college ready” high school graduates, Stoops said.

Stoops likes a provision in Senate Bill 361 to require the State Board of Education to obtain legislative approval before buying and implementing standardized tests linked to Common Core. “This would be a reasonable and welcomed safeguard against high-cost and low-quality tests.”

Lawmakers should take additional steps, Stoops said. “Legislators should call on the State Board of Education, its staff, or an appointed advisory board to conduct an objective and comprehensive evaluation of the state’s existing Common-Core based tests,” he said. “A study commission also would be a step in the right direction. Policymakers should ensure North Carolina’s public school system has the best testing program in the nation.”

Dr. Terry Stoops’ Spotlight report, “Goodbye, Grammar: North Carolina’s Common Core-based English tests disregard grammar, spelling, mechanics, and usage,” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].