The problems with standardized testing in WNC schools

Mom and child participate in the Cake Walk at the 2014 Cullowhee Valley School Fall Festival Photo by Katerina Spasovska

Mom and child participate in the Cake Walk at the 2014 Cullowhee Valley School Fall Festival
Photo by Katerina Spasovska

Testing is something that has brought students together in recent years, especially as more and more emphasis is put on students’ end of grade test scores, not only for the students but for the schools as well.

Students like the 4th grader Sara Rusi struggle with the environment of testing in the classroom. As she described her experience from taking the end-of-grade (EOG) test at the end of her 3rd grade, teachers pull all of the posters off of the walls or cover them in order to remove any possibility of using them for reference during testing. Cubicles are also set up, from her description, sometimes using file folders as the walls of the cubicle creating an environment that is impossible to cheat in. Students are required to take one break during the testing session, where they are not allowed to leave the classroom.

North Carolina schools have been graded based on their students’ achievements since the 1990s, but in the 2013-14 school year, they changed their system. These changes were made to include school performance grades as part of the NC School Report Cards due to legislation which passed during the 2013 long session of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Testing was also changed by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in the 2012-13 school year. Both of these changes mean that a lot rides on the School Performance Grades for students, staff and schools.

“Our schools did not deserve the ranking that this new school report card gave the nine schools within our district. These schools are filled with highly qualified professionals that build relationships with their students and families. These connections save many of our children and none of this is reflected in this one performance based score that is used to represent our system,” said Dr. Michael Murray, Superintendent of Jackson County Public Schools.

School Performance Grades are how parents and the school community can compare their home school to those in the district and across the state. Murray feels that these scores “undermine confidence in public education unfairly.”

According to the NC School Report Cards website, 80 percent of the school’s performance grades are based on their school achievement score. This score is calculated by adding up the points earned by a school’s “indicators.” Indicators change depending on what grade levels attend each school.

Elementary and middle schools indicators are the end-of-grade (EOG) reading scores from third grade through eighth grade, EOG math scores from third grade through eighth grade, EOG science scores from fifth and eighth grade and end-of-course (EOC) math I scores and EOC biology scores for eighth graders.

High school indicators are the EOC math I scores, EOC English II scores, EOC biology scores, the percentage of students who score 17 or above on the ACT, the percentage of students who achieve a Silver Certificate or better on the ACT WorkKeys, the percent of students who successfully complete Math III and the percentage of students who graduate in four years.

The highest composite score for the basic ACT is a 36, which would add up all of the scores for the separate parts of the ACT, and is designed to show whether a student is college ready or not.

Schools that encompass elementary, middle and high school grade levels were scored using the appropriate indicators for the grade levels that are taught at the school.

The other 20 percent of the grade is based on students’ academic growth, which is measured by comparing the actual performance of the school’s students to their expected performance based on their prior testing performance. The entire performance score is rounded to the nearest whole number for reporting purposes.

For the 2013-14 school year, the schools were graded on a 15-point scale, but starting in the 2014-15 school year, schools will be graded on the 10-point scale that is more familiar and understandable for parents. The current grading scale is below.

A: 85 – 100
B: 70 – 84
C: 55 – 69
D: 40 – 54
F: 0 – 40

Alternative schools include schools such as the Jackson County Early College. Beginning in the 2015-16 school year, the North Carolina School Report Cards will be released in September and will incorporate both the School Performance Grades and state READY accountability results.

These grades are not only for the students and the schools, but can also be used as one of the measures to evaluate teachers performance, which can impact license renewal, promotions, tenure and pay in North Carolina, according to the Center for Public Education.

Jackson County Public Schools’ test scores can be seen in this fusion table. Click on the markers to see specific school information, such as the percentage of low income students and their 2013-14 NC School Report Card scores. Jackson County School of Alternates did not have a listed score due to their status as an alternative school.

“A child that gets on a bus as a Kindergarten student that has a family that reads the school is a D or F feels defeated before they ever arrive. This is very unfair to the dedicated professionals that know that the grade they earned does not reflect the effectiveness of their school,” Murray said. As he explained in an email message, this can also affect the moral of the system by turning public sentiment against our educators.

“They can be detrimental when recruiting new teachers to come to your system if they feel it is a failing system they well select somewhere else to work. It can negatively affect our funding, resources, and the general support from our own community,” Murray added.

Former CVS teacher Annie Kitchin agreed.

“Who wants to work in an environment where you are told you aren’t doing enough no matter what you do? Who wants to work in an environment where you don’t have the support or autonomy from administration to try things that you know will be best for your students’ learning? It’s no wonder why all the great young teachers are leaving the school systems… Testing is not a supportive tool for teachers or students.”

A Cullowhee Valley School teacher, who wanted to remain anonymous, spoke to this reporter about the testing process and about the Common Core standards, which are what the tests are graded on. She believes that the Common Core standards are mostly a good set of standards, speaking specifically about math because that is what she knows best.

“The Common Core standards for math were based on what current theories of how children learn mathematics have come about in the past probably 20 years, and that is very solid because there’s been a lot of ground breaking work with how young children learn mathematics. Common Core takes the best of that, in my opinion, to put that into standards that children need to learn.With the standards, you also have the eight standards for mathematical practice that you want your students to develop over time.”

However, she recognizes that there are some problems with the testing process.

“The problem is that when they created the test, they are trying to get all of those mathematical practices into a question

However, she recognizes that there are some problems with the testing process.

The tests are based on the standards, but they make the questions so multi-step and so abstract that they aren’t accessible to most children who haven’t developed abstract thought. I do feel like the standards are appropriate and that we should be teaching them, but I don’t feel that the children, at the end of each grade level, should be masters of abstract thought.   The standards for mathematical practices should be what we seek to develop in all students as they solve mathematical problems, but they were never meant to be assessed in that way.”

A former CVS teacher, Annie Kitchin, said, “I taught for 4 years in a private school before teaching at Cullowhee Valley [School]. At the private school, we never talked about the End of Grade testing. Students had to take the tests, but we never made a big deal out of it. The stress and the pressure wasn’t on the teachers, so it wasn’t on the students. My administrators never talked about how important the tests were. Yet, our scores were consistently at the top! Take away the pressure and the overwhelming anxiety and students and teachers will perform at much higher levels. Conversely,  at Cullowhee Valley I remember sitting down in a grade level meeting after the BOG, MOY and the EOG’s with our Principal and being made to feel like we completely and absolutely failed ourselves, the students and the school. I can tell you that I did everything I could to be the best teacher I could be, and I was constantly told it wasn’t good enough.”

The unnamed CVS teacher noted that a big problem for many students was that the tests were incredibly long, with each portion of the test lasting up to three hours, not to mention the environment that Rusi described from her experience with the testing. The tests are roughly 60 questions long each, which is fairly long.

“How many kids are gonna spend that much time on them[the tests], when they know they’re struggling? Some of them will, but most of them will just get to the [point where they say] ‘I’ve been doing this for an hour. Whatever,'” said CVS teacher assistant, Jonathan Mark Harris.

The other CVS teacher agreed, saying, “I would love to see the percentage of questions correct on the first 30 as compared to the last half of the test, because it’s just so mentally exhausting. I mean, you can just see they’re taking it and sighing. It’s not because it’s difficult, even though it is, but it’s just the amount of mental strain for that amount of time.”

As the testing begins for younger and younger students, so does the anxiety that many high schoolers recognize, especially when they know that so much rides on their performance.

“When EOG’s start in third grade, they feel an enormous amount of anxiety regarding the test. Some kids will throw up, and have major anxiety…In kindergarten through second, I don’t know if they feel as much anxiety, but they definitely know that they’re taking tests…That’s what I love about the younger grades, is they think that they’re good at everything until about third grade,” said the CVS teacher.

Murray had advice for students who were experiencing anxiety about the standardized testing.

“Students need to focus on doing their best. Putting the time in through studying, applying all of their talents, listening to their teachers will pay off academically. Making sure that you mentally battle test anxiety is important to have an accurate reflection of your actual abilities. We continue to emphasize all of our talents including problem solving which should improve the students’ performance on a test. It is very normal for all of us to be anxious over testing but students need to realize that the actual test in only one factor and their passion, determination, and connecting with the material will help them reach their goals and ensure a positive impact on their future!”


Related Stories:
‘World’s best teacher’ does not believe in tests and quizzes’ – PBS

Effects of poverty on WNC children’s education – WCJ

About Ceillie Simkiss

Ceillie Simkiss is a senior at Western Carolina University in the Communications program focusing on Journalism, with a minor in art. Currently enrolled in Features and Magazine Writing, she works as Editor-in-Chief for The Western Carolina Journalist. She also works for the Western Carolinian as a Photographer and News Designer. She can be found on Facebook (Ceillie Simkiss), Twitter (@CandidCeillie) and LinkedIn (Ceillie Simkiss).