Dear Mark Johnson, Reducing Number of Questions on Tests Is Not “Test Reform”

This past January, Mark Johnson issued a statement regarding testing in North Carolina. As reported in the News & Observer:

The number of questions on the state end-of-grade math exams, science end-of-grade exams and biology end-of-course exams are being reduced, according to Drew Elliot, a DPI spokesman. He said changes in the state’s language arts end-of-grade exams will begin in the 2019-20 school year.

The reduction in questions will shorten those exams. Currently, the exams are expected to last three hours with a maximum of four hours to finish them. Elliot said the exams will now take two hours with up to three hours allowed.

In a recent email sent to parents and teachers, Johnson touted that testing reform and guided people to a page on his personal website that tried to explain some of what he has done to reduce the stress and burden on students.


So far, the math tests for 3rd and 4th grades will be reduced by 8 items; the 5th grade math test by 6 items. Grades 6-8 will have math test reduced by seven items.

The 8th grade science test will be reduced by 10 items as will the Biology EOC.

That might sound great to some, but there are some serious questions and considerations that need to be answered and fleshed out.

First, if there are fewer questions for tests, will the tests still themselves count the same amount in the students’ final grades? As of now, an EOC or NC Final in high schools counts for 25% of a student’s final grade for the course. Would fewer questions on a shorter test still carry the same impact as previous tests with more questions on a longer test?

If so, that would mean a student’s final grade will depend on fewer test questions. That’s more room for error and a shorter amount of time would be used to dictate a student’s final grade.

Secondly, these tests would still be used in determining school performance grades. Remember that 80% of a school’s performance grade is based on achievement scores – scored derived from standardized tests.

That would mean if school performance grades still look to follow a formula of 80% achievement and 20% growth, then fewer questions on those tests would mean that each standardized test question would actually have more power in measuring achievement and, therefore, a school’s performance grade.

And there could be more pressure on students because room for error would be smaller. Fewer variables would be at work.

Johnson may be claiming that this will “reduce the amount of stress on students and teachers.” In a sense, he is right. But…

… the stress of standardized tests is the effect they have on student achievement and how schools are measured. Lowering the amount of testing and not reducing the effect of testing on school report cards actually has the effect of placing more emphasis on each question on those standardized tests.

That could induce a lot more stress.  That is unless Johnson is willing to to change how standardized tests are used to “measure” student achievement. He could actually push to eliminate many of the state tests. That would reduce testing.

And he could push to change how school performance grades are used to measure schools and change the formula by which school performance grades are calculated.

In fact, he could push to simply eliminate school performance grades.