HOLLY SPRINGS, N.C. — On the floor of a kindergarten classroom at Holly Ridge Elementary School, Michelle Russolese watches five children closely as they discuss the letter "M."

She asks them what sound an M makes. One boy isn't sure. "What is the action trick?" the teacher asks. A girl stands and looks at a poster with a character called "Munching Mike." She rubs her belly and says, "Mmmmm."

The girl has the M sound down, but the boy doesn't. Russolese takes note, and the information will soon be entered into an application on an iPad Mini. There she can upload a video of a child sounding out letters. She can snap a photograph of a child's drawing. Or she can make an audio note to herself about what to work on next with a struggling student.

This is what testing will look like in North Carolina's early grades. Russolese is part of a pilot program going on now in kindergarten classrooms in about 250 schools across the state.

The method, called "formative assessment," isn't about paper-and-pen standardized testing, or pulling a student out of a classroom and drilling on what he or she knows after each lesson is taught. It's a teacher's constant observation of how a child is learning and developing in various ways — with a goal of using that information to guide and tailor instruction.

Next year the new process will spread to more classrooms and will eventually be in use in every public elementary school across the state. It is an outgrowth of a $70 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant awarded to North Carolina by the federal government and also is part of legislation enacted by state lawmakers.

The plan was recommended by a think tank composed of teachers, parents and scholars from seven universities in North Carolina. The group worked for about a year to devise the program, which moves North Carolina away from testing that some experts say is developmentally inappropriate for young children.

The plan is being copied elsewhere. North Carolina's effort is the model for a 10-state consortium studying early assessment. The group won a $6.1 million federal grant to build on the approach and apply it more broadly.

Kenneth Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, said good teachers already do formative assessment as they teach, but it's not always systematic.

"This is a focus on actually enhancing children's learning rather than just being consumed about evaluating the performance of teachers and schools," said Dodge, who co-led the think tank. "This is really going to enhance children's genuine learning in a holistic way, not only in reading and math but also in their social development, emotional development, self control development … that's what this is about."

The ongoing process of watching a student's development will help teachers understand more deeply who their students are, said John Pruette, director of the state Department of Public Instruction's Office of Early Learning.

It provides more holistic and nuanced information than a number on a score sheet, he said.

"It's real-life evidence of what a child demonstrates in the classroom," Pruette said. "Through your observations, through questioning, through collection of work samples, you get a picture of what a child's performance is within the context of instruction. It provides a more true picture of who a child is."

But how can a teacher manage and teach a classroom while constantly documenting the ups and downs of each child? It's a question that teachers are asking, even if they do like the philosophy.

"It's more to put on our plate," said Teresa Reaugh, a kindergarten teacher at Holly Ridge.

On a recent morning, Reaugh moved from table to table in her math classroom. One group counted with plastic bears and dominoes. Others used a grid and Play-Doh balls to do addition tasks. Others were still trying to identify numbers.

Teachers say the new method will promote more individualized instruction. But other demands have not gone away. There is still one-on-one testing, and there are other documentation requirements.

Russolese said teachers will gain a better grasp of children's developmental stages.

"For a lot of teachers it will be very beneficial to understand that, because it will help you and make you a better teacher. But it is going to be more, and that's the piece I worry about," she said. "It's going to be a huge adjustment for lots of teachers."

DPI leaders say the assessment will be phased in slowly, so teachers aren't overwhelmed. Talks are under way about what other duties can be streamlined so teachers can focus on the new process.

Russolese said the process is time consuming but ultimately worth it. She hopes some of the burdens on teachers can be lifted, because the payoff of formative assessments can be big.

"If you think about just giving a kid a paper and pencil test — you take the test, you look at it, you grade it. Do you know anything about that child? No," she said.

But, she said, when she sits down with a child, talks to that child and asks, "What have you learned," and "Are there any letters that you don't know and you want to work on?" she gets and gives more feedback.

"You get so much more valuable information from talking to a child," she said.

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