We may never know how much our children are learning

Published September 12, 2014

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, Executive Producer and Moderator, NC SPIN, September 11, 2014.

The headlines sounded great. 56 percent of our students passed their end of grade tests, compared to just 44 percent last year. A more thorough reading reveals the 11-point gain was a result of educators relaxing the scoring scale, making the tests easier to pass. It left us questioning whether we will ever know how well our students are performing.

North Carolina may have had the best of intentions but history will note that we have bounced from one education initiative to another since the 1980s. The parade includes the Basic Education Plan, Senate Bill 2, the ABC’s of Education, Smart Start, More at Four, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, Read to Achieve and surely some that don’t come to mind. To further complicate the situation our legislature just scrapped the Common Core and appointed a committee to come up with new curriculum criteria.

Along with our initiatives-du-jour tradition, we demanded to know how much students were learning and how well teachers were teaching, figuring the best way to measure these things was a massive testing program. North Carolina tried designing our own end-of-grade tests but never demonstrated the necessary expertise to do so; besides our tests couldn’t possibly measure how well our students compared with those in other states since we used different tests. We also keep playing with the scoring yardstick, raising or lowering it according to who is barking the loudest that scoring is too stringent or too lax. We remember hearing the cut or passing score on one test was so low a student had only to answer 25 percent of the questions correctly to pass the course.

Our classroom teachers and educators constantly get new instructions, mandates and training about what to teach and what will be tested, conditions considered impossible in most professions. We scratch our heads as one news story after another attempts to report on education, the program where we expend the largest amount of state funds and a fair percentage of local tax dollars.

This latest story continues the confusion. The initiation of The Common Core led to new testing. When results using the new criteria were obtained last year the scores were so low the State Board of Education considered not even releasing them. Following our tradition, it was decided we needed to increase the scoring levels from three to five, essentially making it easier to get a passing score but also making a year-to-year comparison impossible. Sources tell us the actual gain may be less than two percent.

And stepping back for a moment how excited should we be that only 56 percent passed? Shouldn’t we be incensed that 44 percent failed? Shouldn’t that be the big story?

We’ve had an education in how not to measure performance and accountability. What all of us want and need to know how is well our students are performing; only then can we eliminate all the distractions and focus on making improvements.

It is time to get off this dizzying merry-go-round, make a commitment to a curriculum, as well as testing and scoring methodology, and then leave them in place long enough to truly benchmark performance. Otherwise, we may never know how much our children are learning.