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How should we measure teaching and learning in North Carolina?

The last three instructional days have made me stop and think about the validity of assessments for students. Seniors enrolled in English this semester face two very different forms of accountability—both with high stakes before graduation.

Let’s take a closer look at how my students are being tested this week—and see which assessment has the greater benefit.

Nancy Gardner 3Thursday: Each senior will present his or her Senior Project with a formal 15-minute speech made to a panel of community members and school judges. Students must share the findings from their research papers. Focusing on personal growth and challenges they have overcome, students must also discuss the projects they completed with a professional mentor from the community. Students will share digital portfolios and products, dress professionally, and participate in a short question/answer session following their presentations.

Monday: Next week, these same seniors will sit for a 50-question multiple choice state test that will probably contain a piece of literature they have never read before, a long poem, and part of an informational text. Ten of the questions won’t count because they are pilot questions, and since these are all bubble tests, students can make educated guesses. Testing sessions last three to four hours. Students’ final test scores will be used to measure their academic growth in English—and will also count towards teacher effectiveness ratings.

So what’s at stake with these two very different forms of assessment?

For the Senior Project presentations, students’ performance will affect about 30% of their second quarter grade. Although that’s not a huge impact, all seniors have to complete a project in order to graduate. Expectations for success are high, and students look forward to the presentations all year. Even the ninth graders talk about what they will do for their Senior Projects, acknowledging it as a “rite of passage.”

On presentation day itself, all hands are on deck to support our seniors as they practice and prepare. Although they’re nervous, students’ excitement and pride is tangible as community members arrive to judge the presentations.

The atmosphere couldn’t be more different when it comes to the standardized tests. These tests have a much bigger impact on students’ grades—counting for 20% of their entire grade for the course. But they just don’t seem to carry the same importance to the students as the Senior Projects.

On Monday, it will be all hands on deck again to administer the tests, which will take the time of 81 certified staff members and 177 certified test administrators. In total, our school will require 247 student test accommodations, 2,627 tests, and 5,254 test booklets and answer sheets, the latter of which must be counted 3 times and then distributed.

It takes five instructional days—five days in which we could have been teaching students meaningful content and preparing them for the real world—to give all of the North Carolina final exams, end of course tests, and make-up tests.

On test day, our staff makes sure all goes well. Our assistant principals and technology facilitators count and collate tests, ensure training of all test administrators and proctors, and meet all special accommodations. We don’t want any mis-administrations for our students.

And the students themselves? They drag in. Some have studied for the tests, but usually teachers have “reviewed” content the week before. We take away their cell phones and backpacks, and students sit for hours to fill in bubbles. Many of them finish before the allotted time, so we let them sleep or draw on scratch paper.

It takes five instructional days—five days in which we could have been teaching students meaningful content and preparing them for the real world—to give all of the North Carolina final exams, end of course tests, and make-up tests. Some teachers are anxious since these tests are counted as part of their evaluations, but we stay focused on the details of the tests.

So you tell me: which day shows what our students have truly learned? Which assessment shows what teachers have taught? Which assessment helps us see if our students are college and career ready, or prepared for 21st-century demands?

It’s time for the NC General Assembly to eliminate some of these time consuming, multiple-choice tests and let teachers assess students through authentic, performance-based assessments that allow students to demonstrate growth and mastery of standards. These types of assessments will truly prepare our students for the high stakes of our modern world.

Nancy Gardner

Nancy Gardner is a National Board Certified Teacher with 28 years of classroom experience who teaches Senior English at Mooresville High School in Mooresville, NC. She is also a teacherpreneur with the Center for Teaching Quality, serving to connect, ready, and mobilize North Carolina teachers. She blogs at Classroom Serendipity.