The impetus for state education leaders to reexamine how North Carolina’s students are assessed on their academic progress rests with the understanding that students take too many tests and educators don’t learn enough about their students’ learning until it’s too late. Students sit for end-of-grade exams, walk out the door for the summer and only then do teachers learn what worked—and what didn’t.
To remedy this problem, a state task force is taking a fresh look at how students take tests— and the task force’s members are considering proposals that would get rid of end-of-grade exams in favor of a system that better informs teachers about student learning throughout the academic year.
As members of the State Board of Education convened in a working group Tuesday in Greenville to get an update on what kinds of solutions to the testing problem task force members are considering, a picture emerged of how a new system would work.
Instead of giving students informal tests throughout the year to measure academic progress and then having them submit to one high-stakes test at the end of the school year, students would instead be required to take more standardized assessments throughout the year to help their teachers better understand how to reach them.
Striking end of year assessments
In grades three through eight as well as in high school, North Carolina relies on a testing model that focuses its sights on students’ academic progress made by the end of the school year.
The problem with this model is that the results of students’ assessments come too late, after they have completed the grade. Teachers don’t get a chance to look at the resulting data in a comprehensive way and then adjust their teaching methodologies accordingly.
“We need benchmark assessments throughout the year,” said Tammy Howard, Director of Accountability Operations for the Department of Public Instruction.
Those benchmark assessments are already informally administered by teachers on an interim basis leading up to the end of the year, but those formative assessments are generally not ‘normed’ or comparable to other data at a national or state level.
Howard explained that the task force , which comprises superintendents, principals, teachers and other education leaders, is proposing to standardize those interim, benchmark assessments throughout the year so that the data from those tests can better inform teachers’ instruction.
“Part of the idea of formalizing the benchmarks was to make those that are informing instruction be something that would have at least some sort of standardized approach,” said Buddy Collins, a member of the State Board as well as chair of the task force examining assessments.
This effort would “reduce not only the end of grade assessments but also reduce the many local assessments, the concept being that if these interim assessments provide enough information to the teacher to inform instruction then there would be a lack of need for other assessments,” Collins explained.
For grades three through eight, proposals include  assessing students four times a year, with the possibility of anywhere from one or two of those interim assessments being “high stakes,” or those that will factor into a student’s growth score over time. (See a PowerPoint presentation of the proposals here. )
End-of-grade tests would exist no more.
In high school, the task force proposes ridding the state of end of course (EOC) exams and replacing that system with a pre-test/post-test model with grade level assessments administered at grades 9, 10, and 11.
Current law requires the use of a suite of tests by produced by ACT, Inc at the high school level. The law would have to be changed in order to consider an alternative set of exams.
Changes to grades K-3 assessments were not presented to the State Board of Education on Tuesday.
Reexamining the testing model within a silo
“Assessments have to be tied to the concepts of standards and accountability,” said State Board member Patricia Willoughby. She expressed concern about looking at changing the state’s testing model without a broader conversation about what the state’s eventual academic standards will look like as well as how the state’s accountability model will work with the changes.
North Carolina adopted the new Common Core State Standards a few years ago—but thanks to a national backlash against the Common Core that has seen its fair share of opposition in the Tar Heel state as well , lawmakers have authorized a separate task force to review the state’s academic standards  and suggest possible alternatives.
Depending on what that task force decides, the state’s academic standards could be revised significantly by the end of 2015 — well after the State Board is expected to vote on revising the state’s model for assessment, sometime this spring.
“My biggest concern is that we need to look at the implications of all of this together,” said NC Teacher of the Year Karyn Dickerson, a high school English teacher from Guilford County who serves as an advisory member to the State Board.
“We can’t look at testing alone,” said Dickerson who also worried about evaluating the assessment model within a silo. “We have to look at the standards and the accountability model as well — all together.”
A kink in the assessment task force’s proposal is that it’s not clear how it will play with the state’s new accountability model—A-F school grades.
If there are no longer end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments, it needs to be re-determined how A-F grades would be calculated, which rely on data that indicate students’ performance on standardized tests as well as their growth over time on said tests.
Likely a change in state law would be required to accommodate the new proposals. A-F school grades are likely to get a tweak already during this legislative session  to weight them more heavily to how students perform on assessments over time versus on a given day.
Many of the changes the assessment task force has proposed would also require sign off by the U.S. Department of Education, which currently requires the end of grade tests.
A pilot would need to take place in order to determine the feasibility of the proposed changes to the state’s assessment system.
Twenty three local school districts have indicated interest in participating in pilots that could begin this fall, which could be run either by the state or commercial vendors.
Most LEAs said they’d prefer to go with a state-developed pilot program, but several commercial vendors have indicated an interest in offering up their products. Those companies include ACT, Inc., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw Hill, NWEA (makers of MAP) and Renaissance Learning (makers of STAR reading and math assessments).
“In 2015-16 we’d start with the pilot, and in 2016-17 we’d do some fine tuning. 2017-18 we’d go live statewide with the new assessment model,” said DPI’s Tammy Howard.
Lots of issues could impact the timeline, however. There’s likely to be an increased cost associated with the new testing model, and changes made by the Academic Standards Review Commission could affect the implementation of the new assessments.
And the current proposals don’t have a clear solution for how to continue to gauge teacher effectiveness over time — another kink that will have to be worked out.
The State Board of Education must present their final proposal on student assessment to the NC General Assembly by July 15, 2015.
Questions? COmments? Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]