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A new state superintendent, social studies standards, in-person testing, and more: State Board recap

During their first meeting of 2021, State Board of Education members welcomed the state’s new superintendent, Catherine Truitt. The State Board also tackled a host of important topics, including what state testing is going to look like for students this year, new social studies standards, and what priorities the Board wants to advocate for during the upcoming General Assembly long session.

Here is a recap of everything you may have missed.

State Board Chair’s opening remarks

State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis began the first meeting of 2021 with the following comments.

“At the beginning of 2020, we received a report from WestEd which offered recommendations to improve North Carolina’s pre-K to 12 public school system. Over the past year, while combating the pandemic, we also made considerable efforts in partnership with the governor’s office, DPI staff, and other stakeholders to develop a comprehensive set of strategies to elevate the academic achievement of all students across our state. In the days ahead, we will continue to develop and implement these strategies, both to address pre-pandemic needs and to provide the much-needed education recovery from the pandemic.

We remain determined to recreate our public school system to better serve all students and to make our state, especially our public school students, stronger and more resilient. During this time of great opportunity, we must work to clearly articulate the established vision of our public education system. And we will do so in partnership with Superintendent (Catherine) Truitt to ensure the established priorities are fulfilled given the executive, legislative, and judicial commitments to ensure a sound basic education for all.

This transition provides us a unique opportunity to align budget priorities for the upcoming legislative session. Combined with the federal funding that our state and district will receive to address needs identified due to COVID, it’s essential that we not only address immediate needs, but that we also use this opportunity to make systemic, structural, and long-term improvements in every school across our state.

“We’re excited about the opportunities and challenges before us. Transition provides an opportunity to make needed change and to take a fresh, new perspective with increased vigor and innovation in our work. Throughout the various transitions of new staff, responding to COVID, creating new initiatives, we remain fully committed to the guiding principles established by this Board in our strategic plan. And while there remain differences of opinion, we choose to see those differences, like all of our differences, as a source of strength, and remain committed to patient, open, and transparent dialogue, to develop solutions for the benefit of every student we serve in North Carolina, grounded firmly in equity and whole child, knowing that working together we can do the hard work and achieve amazing results by remaining student-centered.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt’s first superintendent’s report

During her first report to the State Board, Truitt stressed that under her leadership, DPI and the Board would speak with one voice. Davis added that the Board is “delighted to be on the same team” with Truitt.

Here are three quoted highlights from her remarks:

“The surest pathway to economic prosperity and freedom in this country is still a public education. But we are not educating all kids. And despite the herculean efforts of our teachers, administrators, and superintendents, and their parents, we are not educating all kids.”

“We will be setting a vision whose north star is that every single child in North Carolina needs to have a highly qualified, excellent teacher and all else will flow under that.”

“I saw a sign the other day that said, ‘One day or day one? You choose.’ Every day that we say, ‘Well, one day we’ll do that,’ is a day that we are not fulfilling our constitutional obligation to provide all students with a sound basic education. So, I vote for day one. I choose day one as I know you all do, and I look forward to beginning this journey with you all.”

Watch a full video of her remarks below.

What will testing look like this spring?

Testing will go forward in person for students this spring — at least as of now — but the stakes are probably going to be lower if a State Board request to the federal government goes through.

The State Board voted Thursday to submit to the federal government two waivers — one related to the percent of students that have to take tests such as the End-of-Course (EOC) and End-Of-Grade (EOG) tests, and one related to the accountability impacts of those tests.

When COVID-19 hit last spring and schools went online, it quickly became apparent that the typical EOC and EOG tests could not be administered as normal. North Carolina sought and received waivers from both the state and federal governments for testing at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

The federal government under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos advised, however, that similar waivers would not be forthcoming this year. As a result, EOCs and other tests for the fall were supposed to go on as normal, though the State Board did provide some flexibility.

While a waiver from testing itself seemed difficult, the Board tentatively decided in December to go ahead and seek waivers on aspects of testing: One relates to the requirement that 95% of students take state exams, and another is a waiver from the requirement that such tests be used to determine school performance grades. The General Assembly would also have to provide a waiver for the school performance grade requirement.

The Board voted unanimously this week to approve a request for those waivers. However, even with the waivers, the Board still intends for testing to go forward this spring. And in order to make sure tests are valid and reliable, they will have to take place in-person at schools, something some parents and educators are leery of. Here is an article from November where education leaders on the ground talk about their concerns regrading the then-upcoming fall testing.

According to the following letter to the federal government requesting the waivers, data from these tests is needed to support educators in “planning and targeting instruction, both in the coming months and post-COVID as students return to school fulltime. Though data from the 2020–21 school year must be viewed cautiously given the context, it has strong potential to give us insight on how to move forward.”

Social studies standards

First, a primer:

There is a significant distinction between standards and curriculum. During a presentation Wednesday, state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) staff described academic standards as “what we want students to know and be able to do.” Curriculum, on the other hand, was described as the system that makes sure students learn the standards.

Here are a couple of examples of the difference presented to the State Board this week.

When the State Board of Education took up the new social studies standards over the summer, there was considerable pushback from members of the Board over their recommended adoption. There were worries that the standards weren’t specific enough, and as a result, each district in the state could end up having radically different social studies curriculum.

The Board ultimately voted to delay approval of the standards until early this year. Fast forward to now, and DPI staff has been working to revise the standards. Here is what they came up with.

The revisions took into account input the State Board gave on the standards over the summer.

Here are a couple of examples of what “explicit language which promotes deliberate inclusion of multiple voices” looks like.

Here is the work DPI staff did on getting public feedback to the newly-constituted social studies standards. In particular, the staff was directed to seek a diversity of voices for feedback.

And here are some “snapshots” of supporting documents related to the standards.

Many of the Board members who voiced concerns over the standards last summer gave their support for them this week. Board principal advisor Matt Bristow-Smith said it’s important for students to understand perspectives other than their own and face “the hard truths of our American narrative.”

Ford, who was appointed to the Board by Gov. Roy Cooper, also praised the new standards and pointed out that North Carolina now has a public school system that is majority students of color.

“I think we know there is no one universal American experience,” he said, adding later: “Our experience varies widely according to our groups.”

But, there was further discussion of the new standards.

Board member Amy White, an appointee of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, said she didn’t support the new standards because of their inclusion of the term “gender identity.”

She said “gender is based on science and the clear scientific data suggests that human beings are born as either male or female.” She added that does not “preclude” a choice.

She also said that while she supported inclusivity and diversity, she worried that some of the language included in the standard materials may lead to curriculum that makes students feel guilty for past actions they had no part in.

Board member Jill Camnitz, a Cooper appointee that leads the committee that developed the standards, said earlier in the meeting that things like “blame” and “guilt” were not the point behind the new standards.

Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson also objected to the standards during his first Board meeting this week.

“We are one group. We are Americans,” he said. “And I think that’s what we should be teaching our children. I certainly have a lot of questions about these standards.”

He said that he was taught about things like the plight of marginalized groups, the experience of Native Americans, and slavery when he learned social studies in school. He said he didn’t understand the need to “all of a sudden” explicitly include these groups in the standards.

“I think a lot of this is being done for political purposes,” he said.

Board member Olivia Oxendine — a McCrory appointee and co-chair of the committee that helped develop the standards — also expressed some misgivings about the standards, though she said her concerns related more to their design.

 Truitt asked that she be given some time to examine the standards so she could weigh in on potential revisions. She expressed concern about the standards, which she clarified in an interview after the Board meeting concluded.

“What is referred to as the inquiry standards appears to be the themes or standards that frame the content standards as a whole. And I don’t think that they are adequate because they are not specific to the discipline of history,” she said.

The Board is set to vote next month. Davis said one reason why the standards vote was delayed from last summer to now was so that a new superintendent could weigh in. He said it’s possible the Board could hold a special meeting between now and next month to consider whatever input Truitt has on the standards.

He called the social studies standards unique among all the standards the State Board must approve.

“They’re our shared history, and yet we don’t share the same history,” he said. “And therein lies the opportunity before us to help our students understand and appreciate the differences and the similarities.” 

If approved next month, the standards would be implemented during the next school year (2021-22).

Read the standards here.

See the presentation here:

Transforming the teaching profession

On the second day of the State Board’s meeting, Board members heard from the Southern Regional Education Board — a nonprofit that advises on education policy — about ways to transform the teaching profession in the state, including changing licensure requirements to increase diversity, increasing support for beginning teachers, and making sure more students can be taught by high-quality teachers.

See the presentation here.

COVID-19 update

The State Board of Education heard an update from state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) staff about COVID-19.

Among the information provided, DHHS staff said that there are 309 cases “associated with currently active clusters” in North Carolina schools as of Nov. 30.

They also provided this chart which compares COVID cases among child care, camps, K-12, and higher education settings.

Read the presentation here.

Legislative priorities

The State Board heard an update on its potential legislative priorities for the legislative session that begins this month. Last month’s presentation included detailed asks with dollar amounts, but this month’s was a more high-level look.

Vice Chair Alan Duncan prefaced the topic by explaining that the presentation was scaled back so that Truitt and her team could delve into the plans and give their input. More detailed legislative priorities will be presented to the State Board next month.

Freebird McKinney, the State Board’s director of legislative and community affairs, gave the legislative update, but not before giving some remarks on recent events in the country. See his remarks and his presentation on legislative priorities below. You can read the presentation below the video.

Read the presentation below:


The following statement was added to this article at the request of State Board of Education staff:

“The State Board of Education practices and maintains COVID-19 safety measures. Any requests to attend the meetings during this time should be directed to the Board office. Requests can be submitted to Dr. Townsend-Smith at deanna.townsend-smith@dpi.nc.gov.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.