Evaluating a year’s work

State tests come into focus for Chatham County

Posted 5/3/19

GOLDSTON — Chris Bowling is no different than his public school peers across the state at this time of year.

Bowling, first-year principal at J.S. Waters School in Goldston, is preparing his …

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Evaluating a year’s work

State tests come into focus for Chatham County

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GOLDSTON — Chris Bowling is no different than his public school peers across the state at this time of year.

Bowling, first-year principal at J.S. Waters School in Goldston, is preparing his teachers and students for end-of-year tests administered by the state. These tests directly affect the school performance grade J.S. Waters will receive later in the fall, and he and his teachers will be evaluated at least in part by those results.

“A lot of teachers have testing anxiety just like the kids do,” Bowling said. “They want kids to perform well, but they also know it comes back on them.”

Students at Chatham County Schools institutions will begin state tests soon — elementary and middle schools on May 24 and high schools on June 3 — and while the anxiety might be hitting its highs now, schools begin preparing long before the calendar flips to May.

Following all the rules

On test day, students will go into rooms and take tests. Pretty simple, right?

Not quite.

Some students will receive accommodations on specific tests, ranging from Braille and large-print editions of exams to read-aloud of certain sections. Making sure all of those accommodations are met and that students needing the same accommodations are grouped together is just one of the hurdles testing coordinators face.

Tania Poston is the assistant principal and test coordinator at Siler City Elementary School. There’s a whole handbook that outlines the rules for sample test items, the storing of test materials, prohibited items in the testing room, recognizing and reporting irregularities and mis-administrations, among other topics, she has to follow.

“Statewide, in years past, multiple times, rules get set because somebody has broken that and there’s been tampering,” Poston said. “The great thing about our district is that we don’t even have tests on campus until about a week before the testing actually starts. Everything we need to do, we go to Central Services so that it is in a secure environment to get things prepared for the test, to get them in the right groups, to get them in the right number.”

Perhaps the most notable case nationally of violation of these kind of rules happened in Atlanta. In 2013, 12 educators were indicted — with all but one convicted two years later — for cheating and breaking rules on standardized tests. According to a New York Times report, the 11 defendants, a mixture of teachers, testing coordinators and administrators in Atlanta public schools, were convicted of racketeering related to inflating test scores and altering answer sheets.

Bowling gave an example of how strict test security is. Test materials are kept in the district’s Central Services building until anywhere from a week to the day before the test. When those tests arrive at the school, they are kept in a separate room that only a few people, sometimes just the testing coordinator, has a key to. On test day, testing administrators, usually teachers, come to pick up the materials and can’t let them out of their sight until they reach the classroom.

Even if they get sick and have to use the bathroom.

“They have to take the test with them,” Bowling said.

If a student becomes physically ill on a test, that test has to be bagged up and counted just like every other test. If a batch of tests comes back one less, even because of vomit, that’s a problem.

“The testing coordinator job, it’s a monumental task,” said Larry Savage, principal at Siler City Elementary. “A lot of accountability. You’ve got to get it right.”

Helping students get ready

Sarah Chicchi served as the assistant principal and testing coordinator at North Chatham Elementary School last year. She’s now the principal at Virginia Cross Elementary School.

Like her fellow principals, Chicchi said test prep is a year-long process. Students will take NC Check-Ins, assessments given three times a year that, according to the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction, are designed “to provide individual and classroom level formative feedback.” Those tests will give teachers and administrators an idea of where their students are at different points in the year.

It also allows students — particularly third graders, who will be taking end-of-grade state tests for the first time — to experience the environment of a state exam.

Closer to testing time, different schools will take different approaches to preparing students. At Virginia Cross this year, Chicchi said, a pep rally will be held the day before testing starts to help motivate students to try their best and improve. Each student develops a “realistic goal” for testing results, she said, designed to meet every student where they are.

“We have kids from all different backgrounds,” she said. “It might be their first day in an American school, they speak no English whatsoever. Holding that student to the same level as a student who has been in school as an English speaker for a long time, you have to take that into consideration.”

Savage said the key word at Siler City Elementary is “stamina.”

“We talk about this word ‘stamina,’ that the kids really need to have stamina on the test, especially the third graders,” he said. “We deliberately try to start at the beginning of year expose them to EOG-type activities, but in shorter chunks. Then during the year, the teachers slowly expand the length of the reading passages they’re looking through, building their stamina so they can read and engage in a text for a longer period of time slowly over the course of the year.”

One focus of administrators is doing what they can to alleviate test stress on the part of students. Chicchi said she’s had students in the past get physically ill on test day or just struggle with anxiety in general related to these exams.

“Some kids really do get very stressed, regardless of our educators’ efforts and parents’ efforts,” she said. “Kids put that additional pressure on themselves because of the seriousness and what it’s all tied to.”

Proficiency vs. growth

The stress is understandable because, on the state level, the students are judged by the tests, the teachers are judged by their students, the administrators and schools are judged by their teachers and the districts are judged by their schools.

The state’s school performance grades are measured by a complex formula that takes into account a school’s proficiency on tests and whether or not they met expected growth from the previous year. In recent years, the formula has counted proficiency for 80 percent of the grade and growth for 20 percent, which Bowling said isn’t exactly reflective of the process.

“There are some kids that are lower than others academically that may not get to proficiency in a specific year, but they grow,” he said. “I’ve love for the state to more recognize growth than they currently do.”

He may soon be getting his wish. On April 26, the N.C. House Education Appropriations Committee released its budget proposal for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 years, including several special provisions. One of those provisions alters the evaluation of proficiency and growth to a 51-49 split, respectively.

The state is also considering changes to the number of tests. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said in January he was instituting some shifts in the number of testing, the number of questions on tests and changing policies around technology.

“New, personalized learning technology allows teachers to get the information they need about students’ progress without high-stakes testing,” Johnson said in a press release. “We will be working with local superintendents and state leaders to reform the system of over-testing. That way, we can give the teachers the time to do what they entered the profession to do: teach.”

Chicchi, Savage and Bowling each said their schools focus more on growth than passing tests, while both are important.

“We all have a little bit of testing pressure, but at the same time, if you let it overwhelm you, you’re not going to do your best,” Bowling said. “The kids aren’t going to do their best if they get too anxious about it. You’ve got to just trust the processes that you’ve taught them through the course of the year. How they’ve been doing all year should match up at the end of the year.”

Chicchi said she hopes Virginia Cross students, teachers and staff don’t get bogged down by the grade they receive.

“I think we’re concentrating on just the good instruction that we do every day and what we do for kids every day,” she said, “and try not to focus so much on the test because we know the good stuff we do every day will translate to good things on the test.”

Savage said that, it might be cliche, but it’s all about helping the kids.

“It can be stressful, but we focus on what we can focus on,” he said. “Growth is what we’re after and hard work is what we’re after. What happens after that, we’ve done what we can and we’ll deal with the good, or if there’s areas for growth, which there always are, we’ll work on that during the summer and come back stronger.”

Reach Reporter Zachary Horner by email at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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