Focus on quality of testing (JLF)

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. John Locke Foundation education analyst Terry Stoops pens another good column in this past Sunday’s News & Record, which focuses on the quality of standardized testing, not the quantity. Stoops says DPI should get out of the testing business now.


A state testing and accountability commission recently recommended that the N.C. State Board of Education reduce the number of state tests given to public school students. Most notably, the recommendations included eliminating the North Carolina Writing Assessment, a test that the state administered to thousands of fourth, seventh, and 10th grade students last week. While the recommendation to eliminate the defective writing assessment is a good one, the problem with North Carolina’s testing program is not simply the quantity of tests, but their quality.

For the past 15 years, the state’s testing program, the ABCs of Public Education, has established a dubious record of bewildering parents, vexing educators and exaggerating student performance. It is time to move to a better testing program, rather than tinker with the flawed ABCs.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction now controls every aspect of North Carolina’s testing program. Our state tests are produced in-house and are not norm-referenced, meaning that we do not know how North Carolina stacks up against other states, let alone other nations. State-by-state comparisons are essential because they are a much more accurate gauge of grade-level proficiency than the in-state comparisons provided by the ABC tests. More importantly, norm-referenced tests would permit North Carolinians to compare student and district performance to state, national and, possibly, international averages.

On the other hand, international testing programs are not controlled by one country. Consortiums of nations come together voluntarily to compare their education systems. International tests produce vital information for participating nations, allowing countries to identify weaknesses and strengths in their public school systems.

International assessments indicate that student performance in the United States starts strong but declines significantly by the time students reach high school. This decline suggests that the quality of public schooling itself, rather than factors like socioeconomic status, accounts for our nation’s poor showing on international tests. The performance of high school students is particularly troubling because, as the saying goes, those who do not finish strong cannot win the race.

In 2003, U.S. fourth-grade students scored far above the international average on the mathematics and science portions of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test. The average mathematics and science scores for eighth-grade students in the United States also exceeded the international average. During that same year, the average math score for 15-year-old U.S. students was lower than 20 of the 28 nations participating in Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing. In science literacy, U.S. high school students scored below the international average. The PISA problem-solving assessment proved the most challenging test for U.S. students, as the average U.S. score was lower than 22 of the 28 nations tested.

U.S. students have made little progress in the four years since the last administration of the PISA tests. In 2006, the average science score for U.S. students was lower than the international average and trailed 16 nations. Likewise, the average math score was lower than the international average and was lower than 23 nations. Finland outperformed other nations on both assessments, but Korea, Japan and the Netherlands were not far behind. On the other hand, in science, students from the United States were on par with students from Poland and France and had math scores that were not measurably different from students in Spain and Portugal.

North Carolina participates in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP tests administered by the federal government allow us to compare North Carolina’s students to those in other states. Some may argue that the NAEP tests provide a sufficient measure of the performance of U.S. states. However, the NAEP testing program, as currently designed, is inadequate.

The NAEP tests are administered infrequently; a representative sample of students is tested in mathematics and reading every two years, while science, history, civics, and geography tests are administered every four years. Because of the nature of the sample, the NAEP cannot provide data on individual school districts, only states.

Further, only students in fourth and eighth grade are tested on most subjects, giving us little idea how well or poorly our ailing high schools are educating our children. The NAEP is a step in the right direction, but we must do more.

It is imperative for the Department of Public Instruction to get out of the testing business and use an independent, credible, field-tested national assessment.

There are a number of norm-referenced tests available for students in grades K-12, including the Basic Achievement Skills Individual Screener (BASIS), Metropolitan Achievement Tests (MAT 8), and the Stanford Achievement Test Series, 10th Edition (Stanford 10). Using one or more of these tests may require the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to make changes to the state curriculum. The effort would be well worth the time – North Carolinians would finally have a testing program they can trust.

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E.C. )


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