What’s the alternative to testing?

February 28, 2014 

This much seems reasonable: North Carolina should hold its public schools accountable for the dollars they receive and spend. And one way to hold schools accountable is to test students on what they were supposed to learn in the classroom.

But this much seems unreasonable: testing a third-grader for up to 30 hours to make sure he has mastered reading. That’s the equivalent of roughly five school days to test a student’s knowledge of one subject. By comparison, the SAT, which tests reading, math and writing skills, takes about one-tenth of that time.

In 2013-14, North Carolina will spend about $7.9 billion on its K-12 schools. For that kind of money – about $8,400 per pupil – North Carolinians have every right to expect their schools to teach their children. And whether we like it or not, testing is the best way to determine mastery of a subject. That’s why the state requires written and road tests before issuing driver licenses.

To be fair, the 30-hour number mentioned above is the extreme. A third-grader would have to fail 108 earlier tests to find himself in 30th hour of testing. But at the very least, until a reprieve granted in February by the Johnston County Board of Education, third-graders here faced nine hours of testing in reading. Again, that’s more than twice the time needed to complete the SAT, which helps determine whether young people get into college.

The need for accountability not withstanding, that’s simply too much testing for a 9-year-old.

Sadly, while reasonable people agree that North Carolina is relying too much on standardized testing, the education establishment has offered no alternative that would assure school accountability.

Teachers, principals and school boards are quick to condemn educations reforms – tying compensation to test performance, ending tenure and giving poor children vouchers to escape failing schools. Their condemnation is predictable and might even be warranted, but what we have yet to hear is any alternative that provides accountability.

And until the education establishment offers an alternative that holds schools accountable for the billions they spend, what’s a taxpayer to do other than look to test scores?

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