DURHAM - The state is mandating that some high school classes, such as chemistry, require a Common Exam.
The test, which in philosophy seems engineered more to evaluate teachers than student mastery of material, may cost Durham Public Schools about $117,000 in 2013. In a proposed policy discussed by local Board of Education members Monday, it would also have meant 15 percent of a student's final grade.
The assessment is "trying to peg and identify bad teachers," said board member Natalie Beyer, who was among those convened as the instructional services committee. "I don't think that is money wisely spent."
District administrators want the board to approve the expenditure to cover the cost of printing exams, hiring a full-time testing specialist and providing stipends for testing coordinators.
Superintendent Eric Becoats said that he has heard from teachers that the Common Exam's stakes should be high enough for them to take it seriously. The 15 percent idea seemed enough to put some skin in the game without being as high as 25 percent, which is used in some other school districts.
The committee voted unanimously to move the policy onto the agenda for the full board meeting Dec. 20, but changed the value of the Common Exam to 10 percent.
Becoats told board members that many districts are worried about the Common Exam, required in any district that accepts federal Race to the Top dollars, because it's an unknown quantity. No one in DPS has seen the test yet. No one knows exactly what it will include, he said.
"It is an unknown," he said.
Heidi Carter, board chair, noted that Race to the Top is set to expire in 2014. Although she acknowledged it could be extended, it still seemed odd to "move full speed ahead" on assessments like this.
"It just seems wrong on so many fronts," said Beyer. She worried that the exam would harm students who are trying to prepare college transcripts and want to maintain decent grade point averages.
"Ten percent seems like it puts skin in the game," Carter said.
The board can reassess next year and decide whether to raise or lower the Common Exam's value, depending on how effective they think it is.
Durham elementary schools won't have Common Exams, relying instead on End-of-Course tests. Middle schools may have Common Exams, but they won't count at all for final grades.
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