Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New era of testing, ratings in NC

Say goodbye to the year-end exams and the N.C. school labels we've gotten to know over the past 15 years, where schools are rated from "low performing" to "school of excellence" based on the percent of students who pass exams. The state will issue its last "ABCs of Public Education" report this summer. Next school year will bring a new set of tests and a new "READY" accountability system.

It's part of the state's Race to the Top push to make testing more meaningful and comparable to other states, while holding schools accountable for a wider array of results and using student results to rate teacher effectiveness.

A lot of this will sound familiar to those who followed Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' efforts to forge ahead on these fronts in 2011. Remember the 52 new tests that drew so much outcry? The state Department of Public Instruction is working on 90 new tests (officials prefer "measures of student learning") to ensure that there's data for teachers in all topics. New versions of high school End of Course exams and year-end language arts, math and science tests for grades 3-8 are also in the works.

State officials who updated me recently say this isn't just about newer and more tests, but better ones.  The "bubble in the right answer" format that has drawn so much criticism will be replaced with online tests that include some open-ended questions. Teachers should get results faster than they do with paper tests, and testing software can offer a more refined gauge of student knowledge by adjusting the level up or down as students get answers right or wrong.  (Next year is a transition year, so it's unlikely all of this will be in place right away.)

The new exams are also designed to reflect the move to national "common core" academic standards, which are supposed to push students across the country to higher-level learning.

The school labels that have graced banners on high-scoring schools since the 1990s will be gone after this year.  So will the promise of  "ABC bonuses"  for principals and teachers based on growth ratings. Those rewards, which provided up to $1,500 for high growth, disappeared from the state budget when the recession kicked in.

There's no money budgeted for a new statewide bonus program, said N.C. Race to the Top Director Adam Levinson, "and none in the foreseeable future."  The state is using Race to the Top money to provide bonuses for teachers with high effectiveness scores at 118 of the state's lowest performing schools, including some in CMS.

After 2012, high schools will be rated on graduation rates and performance on the national ACT college-readiness test, as well as pass rates on the new state exams.

The state is also working on "value-added" ratings of individual teachers,  based on three years of test data. Those individual ratings aren't designed for public release, officials say,  but two consecutive years of low scores could lead to dismissal.

"We're certainly not intending for that to be anything but part of the personnel file," Levinson said. "This is about helping teachers and principals grow and get better."

The change in testing also means that CMS and other N.C. districts will essentially push "reset" on gauging academic success and failure. Scores almost always fall when new tests are introduced, and North Carolina is likely to follow that pattern in 2013, says Angela Quick, the state's deputy chief academic officer. The good news for incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison and the school board:  A climb in subsequent years is almost as predictable.

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