Wednesday, April 3, 2013

North Carolina's Massive Increase in High Stakes Testing: Fair? Not Hardly!

“Without these common exams, we have no objective way to measure the value teachers give their students, and this is an important part of North Carolina’s teacher evaluation model.” Rebecca Garland, Chief Academic Officer, NC Department of Public Instruction
In a recent post to the Charlotte Observer entitled “Newly Required Tests Aren’t as Numerous as You Think”), North Carolina Public Schools Section Chief, Rebecca Garland, defended that state’s massive increase in the number of high-stakes testing. The main gist of her argument is students were going to be taking teacher-made exams anyway, which would be true if these Common Exams or MSLs (missiles as we like to call them) were on the same level as teacher made exams, but they are not.

North Carolina is elevating the importance of these tests to “high-stakes level” because teacher performance will be judged based on them. In the end, North Carolina has massively increased the number of “high stakes tests” it is administering under its “Common Exam Project.” So Garland's remarks are misleading at best.

Garland defends these tests as well by using the common “buzzwords” used by politicians and other policymakers. Judging from her statements in the above post, in one fail swoop she declares these tests:
  • Objective:
  • Fair
  • Accurate
  • Reasonable
Are these Common Exams “objective?” Too often, policymakers and politicians view “objective” as meaning “multiple-choice” or otherwise limited to answers that can’t be verified or constructed. I submit that these common exams are not objective, nor could they ever be. Because these tests were developed by teachers far-removed from the classrooms in which they will be administered, they are not objective. In developing these tests, teachers and state-level test developers make SUBJECTIVE judgments about what would be included on these tests and what would be discarded. This process, by default, is a subjective value judgment on what exactly is worthy of being tested and what is not. The tests might be “objective” in the sense that there may be no room for variability in student answers and do not require the judgment of teachers in determining right and wrong, but the way the tests were developed is a subjective process.

Are these Common Exams fair? Throughout North Carolina’s development of these Common Exams, state level policymakers have used this word repeatedly, as if by declaring these exams "fair" makes them so. There are so many question marks regarding the “fairness” of these tests and how the state has chosen to use them that whether they are “fair” has never been established. For example, take the whole idea of using “value-added” measures. North Carolina has chosen to use this way of evaluating teachers in spite of the fact that statisticians and test designers have cautioned against using such models. In addition, Garland and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction make the argument that they are only using it for a fraction of the evaluation. But if using value-added measures have flaws at all, should they be used in decisions that determine the individual livelihood and futures of educators? Another question of fairness has to do with the tests themselves. Normal final exams are teacher-designed for a reason. That teacher knows the content that was covered and the students to which that content was taught. That means that teacher is able to design tests that measure what they taught and to tailor those tests to the needs of their students. Using the common exams, teachers are forced to give tests developed by others far removed from their classrooms, making them hardly true measures of what was taught.

Are these Common Exams accurate measures of how good a job teachers are doing? We've been trying to judge school performance based on test scores for years. After No Child Left Behind flopped, it was a natural progression for North Carolina to move to the next flop---using test scores to judge educator effectiveness. North Carolina has not done any studies correlating the use of test scores to determine whether teaching improves. But then again, they define "effective teaching" as having "high test scores." Never mind whether those tests have any validity or quality.

In the end, in spite of what Garland and NC DPI assert, North Carolina’s “Common Exams” is a massive increase in the number of “high stakes” exams our students will be subjected to and to simply say they are like the final exams students usually take is misleading. These tests which have been hurriedly assembled, kept in secret, and developed to appease the United States Department of Education are not the salvation of our North Carolina education system. There is a real problem when our own state department of education turns into a propaganda machine, incessantly trying to sell a testing program that no one wants, rather than assisting and serving the educators and students in this state. In the end, our students are the ones that suffer.

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