February 22, 2011
RALEIGH — A debate over a school testing bill that has pitted legislators against a Wake County judge highlights the need for lawmakers to amend the bill. That’s the conclusion of the John Locke Foundation’s top education expert.
“While the way in which Judge Howard Manning inserted himself into legislative debate over school testing is questionable, the issue he raises is on point: State court rulings mandating a ‘sound basic education’ for North Carolina students require some form of testing of those students in core academic subjects,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Education Studies.
“If lawmakers want to proceed with scrapping existing end-of-course tests in U.S. history, civics and economics, Algebra II, and physical science, they should amend their current bill to replace those eliminated tests with more acceptable alternatives,” Stoops added.
The House of Representatives approved House Bill 48 Thursday with a 94-13 bipartisan vote. The measure would eliminate four of the state’s seven mandatory end-of-course tests for high school students.
State senators referred the bill to an education committee Monday. Meanwhile, Manning, who has overseen implementation of N.C. Supreme Court rulings from 1997 and 2004 in the Leandro school-funding lawsuit, sent a 22-page memo to House and Senate leaders outlining his concerns about H.B. 48. Constitutional mandates mean that tests in core subjects are “not subject to elimination by House Bill 48 or other legislative action,” Manning wrote.
“Judge Manning’s general argument has merit,” Stoops said. “Testing is a satisfactory way to determine if the state is fulfilling its constitutional requirement to provide all children a sound basic education. After all, other accountability measures, such as school choice and benchmark assessments, are not as widely accepted. In this way, the wholesale rejection of integral parts of the state testing program may pose a thorny constitutional problem that would have to be sorted out by the courts for years to come.”
Stoops’ analysis does not suggest the existing testing system should be preserved with no changes. “North Carolina’s testing program is far from ideal,” he said. “In a 2010 study of two high school tests that would be eliminated under H.B. 48, the John Locke Foundation found that college and university faculty from across the state were appalled by questions selected from North Carolina’s 2008-09 end-of-course high school civics and economics and U.S. history tests.”
“Survey results substantiate complaints from public school teachers who point out that even a few poorly constructed test questions undermine months of classroom instruction and weeks of test preparation,” Stoops added. “For students, well-reasoned, but incorrect, answers to a handful of test questions can be the difference between meeting and not meeting state proficiency standards.”
The current system needs revision, Stoops said. “If a statewide testing program is ‘constitutionally mandated as part of the accountability process,’ then we need an alternative to the tests written and administered by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction,” he said. “The next step would be to adopt norm-referenced — preferably nationally normed — tests that would allow North Carolinians to compare the performance of our public school students to their counterparts in other states. According to the latest data available, 16 states use an off-the-shelf norm-referenced test, while another eight states use a test that includes norm-referenced elements.”
“In other words, let’s use a ‘repeal and replace’ strategy,” he said. “Let’s find better tests to replace the ones that have caused legitimate concerns for so many lawmakers.”