Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Goodbye to CMS tests, but not testing

Tomorrow's editorial today:

Few phrases have dragged their fingernails across the blackboard in our schools community like this one: “52 new year-end tests.”

That’s what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administered to its students last year, to the very vocal dismay of parents and teachers. The exams were part of a new CMS program designed to provide another measure of how well teachers contributed to student progress. Instead, parents worried that the new tests, when piled atop the assessments already in place, would leave even less room on the smartboard for learning. Teachers feared the testing would play an outsized role in how they were evaluated and paid. We shared all those concerns.

But before you let out a cheer at Tuesday’s announcement that CMS will be scrapping those tests this year, understand that the result will likely not be a net loss in testing. Nor is it a pulling back from the philosophy that teachers need to be evaluated, at least in part, from the data those tests provide. And that’s a good thing.

What’s happening is the State of North Carolina has decided to catch up with CMS, which began developing its testing program a couple years ago under then-Superintendent Peter Gorman. At the time, the state had not begun anything similar, CMS interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh told the editorial board Wednesday. But in an effort last year to compete for federal Race to the Top dollars, the state contacted CMS officials, along with counterparts in Wake County, and asked if everyone could work together on a statewide assessment program.

The result: CMS students will still get tested, but the assessments will come from the state. In agreeing, CMS will free up at least $300,000 a year in administering the tests, and officials also will gladly remove the “kick me” sign that the tests had firmly attached to their backsides.

That money and energy also will go toward developing a better plan to measure teacher effectiveness, a critical but elusive goal for CMS. Under Gorman, CMS has emphasized the importance of improving schools by measuring outputs, like classroom results, instead of focusing on inputs, like the graduate degree that the teacher brought to the school. And that, in turn, meant developing the data that could better quantify those results.

It’s been a bumpy transition, to say the least. Testing has sometimes been rushed and clunky, and teachers have felt excluded from conversations about the tests and how educators should be evaluated. That perception was affirmed by the district’s attempt to get a state bill passed that would allow CMS to launch a pay performance plan without teacher approval.

Now, it seems CMS is learning from its mistakes. The bigger headline this week may be that a half-dozen CMS teachers spoke enthusiastically to the school board Tuesday night about their part in CMS’s Talent Effectiveness Project, which has offered teachers a new say in how their performance should be measured. The project is making real progress, with teachers helping develop measures that can complement test scores. More importantly, one teacher talked Tuesday about initial skepticism fading with the realization they had a real voice this time.
Said Hattabaugh on Wednesday: “It’s essential to have bottom-up and top-down approaches coming together.”

We agree. Despite its mistakes, CMS measurably improved its schools under Gorman, and the next step includes a balanced approach to evaluating teacher effectiveness through test scores and other means. The school board, and the new superintendent it hires, should not stray from that path now.