Balance is Focus of North Carolina’s New Student Assessments

Under the state’s new READY assessment model, teachers will have new tools to make sure students are on track and have a strong understanding of their coursework. The new model, which goes into effect in the 2012-13 school year, is based on a three-pronged approach to testing that focuses on evaluating students throughout the school year.

State Superintendent June Atkinson said a comprehensive balanced assessment system that is aligned to rigorous state content standards is essential for student learning. “Daily classroom assessments help teachers ensure that students understand the concepts being taught,” Atkinson said. “When done properly, students won’t even know they are being evaluated. These ‘pulse checks’ are not graded nor are they part of the state’s accountability model, but they are important as a means of evaluating daily and weekly progress,” Atkinson said.

North Carolina’s new assessment system will continue to include end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, but teachers will have new support for formative assessments. The state will eventually provide an item bank for districts to develop interim assessments, something that local districts have done on their own in the past.

Formative assessments are those ongoing checks that take place in a classroom in a number of different ways such as question and answer sessions, classroom discussions, learning activities, student reflections and conferences. These activities provide teachers ways to gauge a student’s understanding of the concept being taught. The feedback the teacher provides the student is more descriptive to give him or her more direction on how to improve learning. Teachers also can adjust their instruction or re-teach the concept if appropriate. (Examples of formative assessment are available online at

Interim assessments administered periodically throughout the school year are another important component of the state’s new assessment program. “Public school students are very familiar with interim assessments such as chapter or unit tests or mid-term tests. It’s just another way for teachers to make sure students are on track,” North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Accountability Services Director Tammy Howard said.

The final way to ensure students have a solid understanding of what they have learned is through end-of-grade tests and end-of-course tests. These are summative assessments given at the end of the school year or at the conclusion of the course.

Students in the third through eighth grades will continue to take end-of-grade assessments in English language arts and mathematics, and in science at the fifth and eighth grades. High school students will take end-of-course tests in Algebra I/Integrated Mathematics I, Biology and English II. “Formative and interim assessments enable teachers to catch struggling students early, which should result in more students being successful on final assessments and experiencing positive academic growth over the course of the school year,” Howard said.

In addition to end-of-course tests, under the READY accountability model all high school juniors will now take the ACT, a key measure of college readiness; and a select group of high school seniors who are considered CTE concentrators (students who have earned four CTE credits in a career cluster) will take the WorkKeys assessments.

While the format and timing of the end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments will remain the same, students will notice changes in the types of questions asked. The new tests will include more open-ended and constructive response test items so that students can better demonstrate what they know and can do. Students will be asked to provide answers that more directly demonstrate thinking and problem-solving skills. “We are beginning to move away from tests that have only multiple choice questions to tests that have multiple choice questions and some that require students to compose a one-two sentence response or fill in the blank,” Howard said.

While paper and pencil tests are still common, schools will be transitioning to online assessments over the next two years. The ability to do online assessments means that students eventually may spend less time on end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments, and teachers will get better information about students’ knowledge and skills. For example, computerized adaptive online assessments have the capability of adjusting the difficulty level of questions in response to the student’s answers thus increasing score precision and reducing testing time. Online testing also brings with it other efficiencies and cost savings.

Formative, interim and summative assessments comprise the comprehensive balanced assessment system under the state’s new READY accountability model. Although each component is important and should be valued for what it contributes, Atkinson said you should not underestimate the importance of formative assessments.  “While summative assessments are important for reflection, planning and accountability, the assessments that actually change outcomes for students are delivered by teachers throughout the school year.”