School Standards and Testing

With the implementation of the ABCs of Public Education, the Excellent Schools Act, charter school legislation, and other reforms, North Carolina lawmakers have put education at the top of the priority list. But even after some recent progress, repeated problems with the state testing program and disappointing performance from our high school students suggest that more fundamental changes are needed.

Improvement — To Mediocrity

In 1996, the General Assembly approved the State Board of Education's plan for a school-based management and accountability program called the ABCs. The program began with end-of-grade reading and mathematics tests for grades 3-8 and a writing test at grades 4 and 7. In 1998, the state added end-of-course mathematics, English, science, and social studies tests for grades 9-12. Most recently, the state added an 8th-grade computer skills test in 2001 and a 10th-grade writing test in 2002. Taken together, North Carolina has one of the oldest and most comprehensive testing programs of any U.S. state.

Although the ABCs testing program reflects the state's commitment to statewide testing and test reporting, the ABC tests do not adequately assess student achievement. State education officials were embarrassed in 2001 to discover that their new math tests were absurdly easy to pass — a product of poor judgment and a flawed system of field-testing. To achieve "grade level" often means that students need only get half the questions right, so they can expect to pass simply through educated guessing. And while both state tests and the well-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) use four levels of achievement, the performance necessary to earn Level 3 on state tests is lower than the NAEP's Level 2. In other words, North Carolina's expectations are too low.

A related concern is that state testing results don't square with scores on independent national tests. For example, North Carolina's own tests show a significant improvement in reading achievement since 2002, but NAEP results show a sizable decline for 4th-graders (from a scale score of 222 to a score of 218) and a huge decline for 8th-graders (from a scale score of 265 to a score of 259). On the other hand, North Carolina has clearly made significant progress in mathematics performance. Since 2000, NAEP scale scores in mathematics increased from 230 to 242 among 4th-graders and from 276 to 284 among 8th-graders. If our students are going to be globally competitive, we must do a better job producing graduates who are proficient in reading and mathematics.

Despite some signs of improvement, our public schools still have a long way to go. The final outcome of public education is measured in high-school performance, and it remains disappointing. Only 70 percent of North Carolina's students graduate high school in five years. Our college-bound students' performance on the SAT lags far behind the nation. In 2007, North Carolina's total score on the SAT (1004) was far lower than the national average (1017) and ranked 39th in the nation.

If our average performance is mediocre, the situation faced by our minority students can rightly be called a crisis. Among 4th-graders, 32 percent of black students and 16 percent of Hispanics lack basic math skills, while 55 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Hispanics lack basic reading skills. By the 8th grade, 47 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanics lack basic math skills, and 47 percent of blacks and 44 percent of Hispanics lack basic reading skills. Worse yet, only 61 percent of black and 54 percent of Hispanic students graduate from North Carolina high schools in four years.

Teacher Standards

State education leaders tout teacher testing and certification requirements as the way to maintain high standards for public school teachers and improve student performance. Yet, study after study shows that these factors do not guarantee good teachers. To be granted certification, teachers in North Carolina are required to pass one or more Praxis tests that evaluate a teacher's knowledge of subject-area content and pedagogy.

Nevertheless, the scores required to pass individual Praxis tests are relatively low. Despite the fact that the state granted certification or licensure to nearly 93 percent of the teacher workforce, there is no evidence that the process has separated the wheat from the chaff.

Furthermore, the state urges teachers to participate in the National Board Certification program as a way to improve student achievement. As this certification process exists today, the required portfolio of student work, videotapes of teaching, and "reflective" essays say little about a teacher's potential deficiencies, such as poor knowledge of the subject matter.

Studies that assess the relationship between national board certification and student achievement show mixed results across student subgroups and ability levels. Although there appear to be no instructional gains for teachers and no consistent academic gains for students, the incentives for teachers to pursue certification are too good to pass up. Teachers receive full payment of the assessment fee, paid leave, continuing education credits, and a 12 percent pay increase for 10 years.

Recommendations

1. The state's end-of-year and end-of-course tests should be replaced with 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. North Carolina should also set an intermediate goal of at least half of students showing proficiency and 90 percent testing at the "basic" level as defined by reputable national tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

3. In addition to measuring, reporting, and rewarding overall growth in school test scores, the state and local school districts should reward individual teachers based on the value they add to the performance of their students.

4. State policymakers should deregulate and decentralize public schools while maintaining accountability for results by abolishing teacher tenure and rigid certification rules.