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House leaders push forward a number of education bills

In the last few days, the House has filed or considered a host of bills impacting K-12 education, including measures aimed at reducing testing and expanding materials that local districts can spend textbook money on. On Tuesday, the House Education K-12 Committee voted on those two measures.

“We’re going to have a busy few weeks in education,” Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said. 

Hours Bill 377: Reduced Testing

Amid calls from many parents, teachers and local leaders, House Bill 377 aims to reduce the number of tests in certain grade levels and move toward more teacher-generated tests throughout K-12 schools.

As the only state legislator who is a school teacher, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, drew on his experience watching elementary students take end-of-grade tests. Sometimes, he recalled, they sit for an entire school day to complete the test.

“At that point, it just turns into an issue of endurance more than anything else,” he said. “I do not know what you’re pulling from that.”

At the K-8 grade levels, the bill would not reduce testing so much as spread it out. Instead of a four-to-five hour year-end end-of-grade (EOG) test, students would take three shorter, 90-minute “check-ins” throughout the school year. The goal would be for test results to become available to teachers so that they can use the data from one exam to determine what a student should work harder to understand prior to the next exam.

For high school students, HB 377 would eliminate the end-of-course (EOC) tests in favor of a national standardized test that could be used to compare North Carolina students to those in other states — like the ACT which is used in 17 states currently. High schoolers would also see the NC Final Exam and their graduation project requirements go away.

Local systems would be prohibited from adding their own standardized tests beyond any required by the State Board of Education.

“Testing is an issue that we’ve been talking about, seems like, forever,” Horn said. “Everybody agrees we need to reduce testing. We’ve talked a lot about it; it’s about time we do something about it.”

House Bill 315: Expanding Instruction Material

Rep. Elmore also introduced a bill intended to give school systems more flexibility around instructional material spending, expanding the definition beyond textbooks and allowing schools to use that money for broader resources, such as digital learning tools. For instance, school districts could use “textbook money” for iPads or smart boards in the classrooms.

“What we’re doing is changing the definition of what is a textbook,” Elmore said of the bill, which passed the House K-12 Education Committee with a party-line vote of 13-12. “We’re trying to modernize that definition, so included in that would be pieces of technology, computer software, display screens — such as your smart boards, your televisions — to actually display the material. So by changing the definition, it’s a whole lot broader than what the current textbook statutes allow.”

In committee, Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, questioned the impact on costs, saying that purchasing at the state level allows for reduced-price, bulk purchasing, whereas shifting to purchasing at the local level could mean higher costs — both in the specific instructional material and in the staffing time it would take for local districts to purchase items for themselves.

“I’m concerned about that fiscal impact,” Meyer said, “and think that this is something that probably many local districts would not want to incur.”

Elmore pointed out, however, that the state’s bulk purchasing power is akin to having a coupon for a store that’s going out of business. He said there may be a higher cost to allocating money for items that schools don’t want.

“We’re trying to empower the locals to be able to use their money in an effective way and modernize it,” Elmore said. “We have quite a bit of money that is sitting that would be unable to be expended under the current format because that is just not a material they are interested in purchasing. They are maybe more concerned in purchasing iPads, for example, or purchasing a particular computer program. And the ability to do that in the current structure is just not there. So you’re going to have millions of dollars sitting on the table that will just be sitting there, and that’s not good for us as budget creators or for children or parents.”

The bill also offers parents a new route to challenge those materials. Under HB 315, local boards of education would maintain repositories of instructional materials, which could include textbooks or software, for parents to review. For sex education materials, a notice would go out to parents. A media advisory committee would be created at the local level to review challenges to instructional materials by parents.

That committee would report back to the local board, and if the local board overruled the challenge, the parent could appeal to a new state-level advisory committee appointed by the State Board of Education. The state board would have final say. Currently, parents are required to go directly to the state board through the adoption process.

House Bill 266 and House Bill 354: School performance grades

House Bill 266 would split academic performance and academic growth scores into two separate grades for school performance grades while House Bill 354 would change the current scale for school grading from 80 percent student performance and 20 percent growth to 50-50.

Rep. Elmore said HB 266 would allow parents to see “the balance of what is going on in the school between proficiency and growth. So I think that can be a very powerful tool for the transparency of what’s going on in the schools.”

Alternatively, Rep. Horn said HB 354 would stick with the one grade parents see now, but would adjust the weighting to be equal among proficiency and growth.

“Growth is truly the measure of teacher success,” he said. “By the same token, as a business man, I simply want to know: can you do the job or not. So proficiency is every bit as important. Growth measures, in my opinion, the success of the school environment, the education environment, and proficiency measures the outcome. We think that those deserve equal weight, rather than 80-20.”

Republican House leaders have said they plan to pass both bills and see which the Senate prefers. These bills could be heard on the House floor as early as today.

House Bill 362

Also dealing with school report cards, this measure would make permanent the 15-point A-F scale. When initially passed, school grades were supposed to change to a 10-point scale. However, rather than create a sudden change, the state grandfathered the previous 15-point scale for the first two years. HB 362 would override the 10-point scale and make the 15-point scale permanent.

“What House Bill 362 does is impact only that grade on the outside of the school,” Horn said. “And it maintains the current 15-point break. This does not at all or in any way impact the individual grades for a student.”

House Bill 79

This bill would let school systems tie their start date to the local community college’s, Horn said, to help dual-enrollment high school students getting college credit. The Senate has traditionally not favored earlier start dates for K-12 schools.

The House is also considering House Bill 276, which would change the state’s definition of low-performing schools, and House Bill 295, which would prohibit corporal punishment in schools. All three of these bills have passed the House K-12 education committee so far. House Bill 79 and 295 are slated to be heard by the full House today. 

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC who is passionate about shining light on under-reported issues.