Johnson: In NC, We’re Doing Away With Overtesting and Using Personalized Learning to Make Sure Students Get the Education They Deserve

A version of this essay originally appeared on EdNC.org.

As state superintendent of North Carolina’s public schools, I often hear from other leaders that standardized tests help hold students, teachers, and schools accountable. Accountability is important for our schools as well as for our leaders. But the testing system that the education-industrial complex has built over the past decade forces students and teachers to endure too many high-stakes tests layered on by federal, state, and local authorities.

It must stop.

Since being elected superintendent, I have worked hard to give voice to those who have the most to gain and lose in our K-12 schools. Breaking new ground for the state education agency, we emailed parents a few months ago, asking what they thought of standardized testing. More than 42,000 responded, and 78 percent told us that their children take too many tests.

Our classroom educators agree. At the end of the last school year, we asked teachers what they thought of standardized testing. More than 25,000 of them took the time to respond, and 76 percent said North Carolina’s students are tested too much. I agree — as both an education leader and the parent of a child in our public schools.

The concerns from parents and educators did not shock me. I hear them frequently as I travel across the state to listen to parents and teachers. Even more, I volunteered as a proctor for an end-of-course exam for fourth-graders last year to get firsthand experience. Almost everything I saw that day concerned me. I looked on for four hours while 9- and 10-year-olds took their English exam. Almost all of them finished in under two hours, yet all had to sit through the entire four-hour exam period. And not just the students being tested were affected: Every teacher at every grade level in the school had to modify their normal schedule and instruction. From a learning perspective, it was a lost day.

Clearly, there is too much testing — and the tests we have are not good enough. There is no “average” student, yet we rely on standardized tests that are designed based on what the “average” student should know.

Still, parents, educators, community leaders, and education leaders agree that we need to strategically monitor student progress. Otherwise, how can parents be assured their children are learning? How will teachers know what their students need? How will employers know that North Carolina high school diplomas mean students are ready for their next steps?

This is not a new dilemma. In fact, we have seen two decades of back-and-forth since the accountability movement went nationwide with the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s an old problem, but fortunately, there is a new solution to it. We can use 21st century technology to replace outdated testing methods with fewer and better tests.

New, personalized learning technology allows teachers to get the information they need about students’ progress without high-stakes testing. Especially in the early grades, progress checks can feel like a normal, engaging lesson instead of an examination. In many cases, students won’t even know we are checking on their progress.

We are working with local superintendents and state leaders to reform the system of overtesting that the education industry created. In doing so, we can get back the time for teachers to do what they entered the profession to do: teach.

Here are some ways we are attacking the problem of overtesting this year: reducing the number of questions on tests, reducing the amount of time students must sit for tests, changing policies to reduce stress at schools around testing time, working with local leaders to reduce the number of tests, pushing to eliminate tests not required by the federal government, giving students other ways to show progress if they have a bad test day, and using the appropriate amount of technology as a tool for students and teachers to personalize learning and eliminate tests.

Some of the ways we are transforming our education system so that it better supports students and educators are revolutionary. Some are common sense. All require us to hold the education-industrial complex at least as accountable as we hold students and educators. We are doing that, and the future is bright for North Carolina’s public schools as we work together to transform our education system to better support all teachers and students.

Mark Johnson is North Carolina state superintendent of public instruction. After teaching school in Charlotte and serving on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, he now lives in Raleigh with his wife and their daughter, who started kindergarten in August.

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