Promise will be put to test

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson may have signaled his intent to reduce the testing load for North Carolina public school students, but education officials, past and present, say the new superintendent is going to need some help from state and local policymakers to achieve his goals.

The Winston-Salem Republican — who has not responded to multiple Policy Watch overtures for an interview since his upset victory in November — campaigned on the promise to reduce “over-testing” in North Carolina schools, a promise he said former state Superintendent June Atkinson failed to deliver on during her 13-year tenure in the state’s top education post.

It comes after more than a decade of multiplying examinations in U.S. schools following 2001’s No Child Left Behind, the federal education law passed at the peak of the public school accountability movement.

Today, however, the new superintendent, who has avoided specific promises in his first weeks in the job — opting instead to launch a statewide listening tour for the remainder of the year — seems likely to advocate for state officials to jettison some of the testing load for students.

Just how much power Johnson will have though remains to be seen, as many say unilateral action from the superintendent’s office seems a farfetched notion.

“It absolutely does not work that way,” said Atkinson. The former superintendent and other top education officials say both federal and state laws, such as the GOP-championed Read to Achieve law shepherded by Republican Senate President Phil Berger in 2012, will complicate matters for Johnson.

Critics says the GOP-backed law, while perhaps admirable in its intent to ensure students in the lower grades were on track, only bolstered a system of testing that places students in a perilous position to pass or fail come the end of the year.

As former Policy Watch reporter Lindsay Wagner reported in 2014, Berger’s law, which mandated passing reading tests before students in lower grades could advance, helped usher in expanded early-grade testing from districts seeking to lessen the reliance on high-stakes, “make-or-break” examinations at the end of the school year.

Furthermore, with federal laws mandating numerous K-12 tests from third grade and up, and local governments granted the power to approve their own testing exceeding state and federal mandates, control over the state’s numerous examinations may be too far-flung for Johnson’s office to lead any speedy reforms during his tenure, some say.

Still, officials who spoke with Policy Watch indicated there is some bipartisan support for streamlining a complicated, time-consuming system criticized by parents, teachers, students and policymakers alike.

“We need to reset the importance that has been given to testing in our state,” said Atkinson.

To understand where we are, experts say, we need to understand where we’ve been.

Early in former President George W. Bush’s first term, education reformers blasted chronically-struggling public schools, many of them located in the nation’s poorest districts, that they blamed for failing students.

The answer — according to the bipartisan-approved No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and, to an extent, its federal successor, 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — is holding schools accountable by strict testing mandates.

Federal officials hoped the scrutiny would drive improvement in lagging public schools, but NCLB’s numerous critics, both Republicans and Democrats, say the law instead stigmatized struggling, oft-impoverished, districts and their students.

Stuart Yeh is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert in the nation’s K-12 testing expansion since NCLB. Yeh says the country’s drift toward standardized testing “punished and demoralized” some students, rather than rejuvenating learning in the districts federal reformers hoped to galvanize.

“Students were told they were not ready for college, or a career,” Yeh said.

His 2016 book, “Solving the Achievement Gap: Overcoming the Structure of School Inequality,” blames legislation like NCLB for exacerbating conditions in already troubled schools and undermining efforts to bridge so-called “achievement gaps” between students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Public school advocates agree. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, an influential teachers union that counts 1.5 million members nationwide.

Weingarten blames the accountability movement with a “national fixation” on testing, which she says has driven teachers away and stigmatized struggling schools.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, a Raleigh-based teaching advocacy group, told Policy Watch last week that the movement’s legacy will be high-stakes exams driven with the goal of rooting out poor teachers, for better or worse.

It’s not productive for schools or students, argues Jewell, who says the testing accountability movement lacks empirical evidence that it’s had a positive impact in long-struggling schools.

“They’re supposed to be used for diagnostic purposes,” said Jewell. “And not just for punitive measures.”

Billy Ball joined N.C. Policy Watch in January 2016 as an education report.

Billy Ball joined N.C. Policy Watch in January 2016 as an education report.

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