Thanks to a last-minute revision to North Carolina’s year-old K-12 accountability law, none of the teachers in the state’s lowest-performing schools had to take a much-talked-about competency exam last week.
State lawmakers headed off a threatened boycott of the test when they approved the changes to the law just days before the scheduled testing date.
The exam was to have been taken on June 12 by about 250 educators as required by the Excellent Schools Act, enacted last year. Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat who had not supported the original assessment language, signed the revision measure into law on June 9.
A bill that would also change the law’s impact on administrators--the original statute calls for the suspension of the principals in the lowest-performing schools--was approved by the state Senate last week and debated in the House. The debate was expected to continue this week.
Originally, 15 of the state’s 1,600 schools were deemed low-performing under the terms of the Excellent Schools Act after their students’ performance on state tests last year failed to meet expectations.
The broad reform law awards bonuses to educators in the schools that meet or exceed the state’s standards, but puts principals and teachers in sub-par schools on notice that they could be fired if they don’t improve.
The targeted teachers, principals, counselors, and other certified staff members had threatened to sit out the exam, calling it a punitive and counterproductive measure.
Union leaders successfully negotiated with state legislators earlier this month to change the law. (“Testing Awaits Staffs in Low-Achieving Schools,” April 15, 1998.)
“It was driving the best teachers out,” said John I. Wilson, the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “These teachers should never have been harassed. They should have been honored for their commitment.”
The law held teachers to perhaps the most rigorous standards of any state, according to Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
On such a contentious issue, it may be necessary to include “a lot of trapdoors” in the law to allow teachers to avoid testing and to prevent court challenges, he said.
Although accountability measures for teachers and principals were central provisions in the law and won resounding bipartisan support among North Carolina lawmakers last year, this year’s revisions passed overwhelmingly.
Change of Heart
Even Rep. Gene G. Arnold, a Republican who led the initial push for the teacher testing program, voted for the changes, as did many of his colleagues.
“The new version doesn’t create the morale problems of the original law,” said Sen. Austin M. Allran, also a Republican. “It encouraged teachers to avoid those districts.”
A few teachers who might have faced taking the test this year either resigned or retired, according to state education officials.
In the future, principals or state assistance teams assigned to struggling schools will give teachers evaluations to be devised by the state school board.
If a poor evaluation suggests a teacher lacks general knowledge--as opposed to having other problems such as using ineffective instructional techniques--the teacher could be asked to take the multiple-choice test, which includes reading and writing sections that evaluate knowledge on a variety of topics.
The revised law gives teachers who fail the test just one chance to retake it and avoid dismissal, after they receive more training at state expense. The original version allowed teachers three opportunities to pass before facing dismissal.
Questions of Competence
The latest version of the accountability measure waters down many of the standards outlined in the law last year, said Sen. Hamilton C. Horton Jr., a Republican who voted against the changes.
He criticized a series of compromises that he said led to a law much less stringent than originally intended.
“Many of us are fearful that some people teaching in the classroom are not competent to teach,” Mr. Horton said. “What we were asking was that they take a test that was normed at the 10th grade level. We’re simply asking teachers to have the same general knowledge of a high school sophomore.”
Mr. Horton added that he and other lawmakers had initially wanted to test all teachers on their performance in the classroom. They eventually agreed to target only teachers at the worst schools.
The test was then rescheduled from May to this month, and its mathematics component was dropped.
“There are more hoops and hurdles to go through and over to dismiss an incompetent teacher,” Mr. Horton said.
But Mr. Wilson of the teachers’ union said his organization was ready to file suit to stop the test. The union, however, was satisfied with the changes.
“The state legislature is still doing a little more micromanaging than we would have liked,” Mr. Wilson said. “Our advice to marginal teachers is...to teach somewhere you are going to be successful.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1998 edition of Education Week as N.C. Lawmakers Revoke Teacher-Testing Plan