The North Carolina State Board of Education is scheduled to approve school test scores on Thursday, Nov. 7, for the 2012-13 school year and all indications point to much lower results than in previous years.
Under normal circumstances this would be an alarming indicator that schools are performing much worse. However, this is far from the case. The 2012-13 school year represented a major shift in public school expectations for students, teachers and administrators with the implementation of a new set of national curriculum standards called the Common Core and a much different way of assessing how well students are performing on those standards.
North Carolina has been a national leader in student assessment and state test development. Over the past 20 years, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction has worked hard to develop assessments in reading and math that did a great job in measuring what students knew and how much they grew within a school year. As my mentor principal used to say, “A year’s worth of growth for a year’s worth of teaching!”
However, in 2001 with the passing of the No Child Left Behind federal legislation, schools across the nation were required to meet rigorous testing standards in order to continue receiving federal funds. While the legislation was well intended, it had a fundamental flaw; more emphasis was placed on testing and not teaching and learning. Also, states continued developing their own tests and as a result, many set the bar very low. This made it impossible to truly measure one state against another and determine how well our students were performing against students in other states.
In the end, state testing became more of the “fox guarding the chicken coup”.
Out of this confusion and a desire to ensure our students continued to compete globally, governors across the nation met and discussed a common set of curriculum standards. Assessments that aligned to new standards were developed and are much tougher tests that require our students to think deeper and learn with greater depth. Students now must explain how they got an answer on some test questions instead of simply answering a multiple choice question.
More than 45 states have signed on to these new, tougher standards which now allow states to measure how well they do nationally when using the same standards. And with any new initiative of tougher standards and assessments, schools will experience what is called the “implementation dip.” This simply means one is using new methods and tools unfamiliar to both students and teachers and as a result, there will be a significant drop in test scores initially, but they increase over time.
I have met with students across the district and will meet with others in the coming days to discuss the expected tests results and how their knowledge and abilities as learners have not dropped, and that they are being tested with much tougher measurements. I’ve described to them a scenario where they were a pretty good basketball team in an average league, but now they are playing in a much tougher league and the basketball goal has been raised from 10 feet to 15 feet. They clearly understood that their basketball skills did not get worse, but rather, they were playing with a new set of rules and with much tougher competition.
As parents, it is essential that we understand that many students that achieved a level three or four on our old tests will possibly score at level two and three on the new state tests. Our children are not performing poorly and our teachers are not performing poorly. This new era of standards represents greater expectations from everyone and continued experience with them will make students better prepared for the 21st Century.
Teachers will also become better equipped to teach and prepare them. Bladen County Schools has utilized the past two years learning the new standards, providing vast amounts of professional development and spending many, many hours learning to work collaboratively with other teachers. Through this major shift, our graduation rate has grown and the number of students dropping out has decreased. Additionally, we have greater access to technology, and our internet network infrastructure has been upgraded. Teachers have achieved these successes in spite of sadly being stripped of tenure, not getting a pay raise, and decreases in school funding at the state and federal levels.
My words in this article are to inform our community that our schools are doing well. We have asked teachers and students to perform at a higher level, which challenges their every being. This is necessary in order for our children to compete with students in other countries. Additionally, change takes time, and we should not be quick to change directions simply because performance appears to have dropped. These new standards and assessments will prepare our students to live in an ever changing 21st Century. They can no longer depend on a factory job that lasts for thirty years.
Research indicates that our children will hold five different jobs by the time they are age 35. Their performance and understanding of these new standards will increase and our students will leave better prepared than they have ever been. And with an ever changing global community and economy, they will leave with the best education available and the ability to adapt to and answer the toughest question they will ever face … “knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do!”
— Robert Taylor is the superintendent of Bladen County Schools.