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7 takeaways in education news this week: Istation, learning disability policy, and State Board

The Department of Public Instruction and Istation, maker of a K-3 reading assessment software, filed a joint motion Monday asking for a ruling in the ongoing fight over how the state’s students are tested. The motion, first reported and posted by WRAL.com, was filed with the Chief Information Officer of the Department of Information Technology, the agency overseeing technology procurement.

The motion alleges that a delay in ruling has caused “worsening statewide confusion” and “threatens to implicate the fundamental, constitutional rights of public school students to a sound education.”

The motion states that if a ruling is not issued by Dec. 9 at noon, DPI and Istation “will be forced to seek relief in superior court.” The motion does not specify the nature of the relief, but it may be limited by statute to an order compelling a ruling on the stay.

In providing for judicial review of administrative hearings, the North Carolina General Statutes state that failure of an administrative law judge “to make a final decision within 120 days of the close of the contested case hearing is justification for a person whose rights, duties, or privileges are adversely affected by the delay to seek a court order compelling action by the agency or by the administrative law judge.”

DIT put Istation’s contract on hold in August pending an administrative hearing. Istation’s competitor, Amplify, which lost out on the contract, requested the hearing challenging State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s decision to choose Istation over their company.

Until now, the parties have been arguing about whether the DIT hold was proper. The hold would either be lifted, maintained, or amended. The parties were scheduled to begin arguments on the merits of the case on December 9, but an Office of Administrative Hearing clerk said that’s been pushed to the second week of January.

Specific learning disability policy changes coming?

A group of stakeholders, including representatives from DPI, educators, learning disability advocates, and a national representative from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, met Monday to discuss the state’s new specific learning disability policy scheduled to take effect this summer. On Tuesday, DPI’s director of the exceptional children division, Sherry Thomas, and State Board chair Eric Davis also met with a group of advocates.

The convening broke into groups to discuss concerns over the language of the new policy, including a cultural comparison factor that advocates worry could make it harder for black and brown children to be identified for services. 

The policy addendum slated to take effect July 1 states, in part, that “Student performance must include comparison to state and/or national norms and district norms when available. This may include comparison to other groups such as culturally and linguistically similar peers, classroom, school, and/or other comparison groups…”

With average performance scores of black and LatinX students trailing those of other racial subgroups, comparing scores within either subgroup could make it more difficult for black and LatinX students to be identified for specific learning disability services.

Thomas said the cultural comparison was included only as a factor, and it was an effort to consider the whole child. But she acknowledged concern that the metric could be misused. 

“That is an area where we’ve gotten a lot of feedback,” she said. “A lot of concerns. It’s been a hot-button, so it is definitely an area where we are looking to do some clarifications, some language cleanup, some better guidance on. It is one of the recommendations they made for a change.”

Thomas said that Monday’s convening resulted in three recommendations, one of which included either removing or revising the cultural comparison language. It is still early in the process, which includes providing new language to an internal rules committee and presenting any changes to the State Board. The proposed timeline is to present to the State Board for discussion in March and for action in April.

The revisions will not be solely focused on policy. The policies are accompanied by guidance documents explaining how to carry out the rules, and Thomas wants to make sure those documents are sharp, as well.

“We’re not changing the intent of how we do eligibility,” she said. “We need to clean up some of that language and make it tighter.”

AP course takers, exam takers and scores are down

The Division of Advanced Learning and Gifted Education presented data on Advanced Placement (AP) students and test takers in the state, showing that the number of AP students is down for the second year in a row and the number of test-takers is down from last year.

Sneha Shah-Coltrane, who presented to the Board, spoke about an expanding list of partnerships and interventions to broaden access to advanced courses. She didn’t hide from the elephant in the room, though.

“Even though we have all these interventions in place, for the first time in five years we are seeing a decrease,” she said.

After posting increases from 2013 to 2018, the number of AP students dipped almost 1% last year. This year, that number is expected to drop 4.8%. Meanwhile, the number of students taking AP exams fell 1.5% and the number of total exams taken fell 3.6%. Performance was also down from 2018 to 2019, with the number of examinees scoring a 3 or higher down 1.6%.

Shah-Coltrane said some of the dip in course and test takers might be attributed to a rise in dual enrollment among high school students.

“The goal is to increase access to advanced courses across the state, as well as to increase success in the participation of those courses,” Shah-Coltrane said.

How history is taught in the future

State Board member James Ford voiced his concern at the State Board meeting over the teaching of history and advocated for complete, accurate, and culturally relevant history instruction. His statements came as the Board considered how offering personal finance classes to high school freshmen would impact their history curriculum, as well as the Board’s decision to follow Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) guidance voting not to allow Old Main STREAM Academy’s fast-track application.

Old Main STREAM Academy’s proposed curriculum would have focused on indigenous students, but CSAB said it was “divisive instead of bringing unity.” On Thursday, Ford referenced stories of state educators wearing Native American headdresses during Thanksgiving week while speaking on the importance of presenting a historical portrayal of indigenous people.

“To me, that’s not inherently threatening,” he said, “except that it does disrupt some of our mythologies about American history. I would encourage that community, the indigenous community and other folks who want to teach from a culturally relevant perspective, to not compromise on that. You can still hold high standards of rigor and academic achievement and center the lives of color at the same time.”

The day before, the Board heard about forthcoming changes to social studies standards next year to accommodate new state law which requires high school students take an economics and personal finance class before they graduate. A proposal for new standards is expected to circulate next week, but much of the discussion on Wednesday focused on what courses would be subtracted to make room for the new one.

Ford said he worries that adding economics and personal finance at the expense of a history course could give students an incomplete picture of American history.

“I would love to talk about financial literacy, grounded in some macroeconomics of racial wealth gaps and all that, but I know that’s off the table,” he said. “A lot of this feels very problematic to me … This feels like an à la carte arrangement when it comes to history. As we think about creating global-ready citizens, it really frightens me.”

ISD presents new process for school selection

James Ellerbe, superintendent of North Carolina’s Innovative School District (ISD), provided a brief update on next steps for selection of schools going forward. In November, the General Assembly passed a law pausing selection of new schools for the ISD in the wake of poor performance results for Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County, the lone ISD school. Instead, the ISD and State Board representatives are visiting the superintendents of districts for the 69 schools on the ISD qualifying list.

Meanwhile, Ellerbe spoke about the new procedures for a school’s selection for the ISD. For the next two school years, the State Board would transfer the lowest scoring qualifying school to the ISD, based on the school performance score. Qualifying schools are defined as those that receive Title I funds and are in the bottom 5% of school performance grades, with alternative schools, Cooperative Innovative High Schools, and schools in their first or second year of operation exempted.

Beginning with selection of schools for the 2023-2024 school year, a four-plus year process will be used to select ISD schools.

In Year 1, notice is sent to the superintendent and local board of education (LBE) if a school is identified as a qualifying school. The notice would include performance data and considerations for improvement. The LBE must then notify parents of (a) the school’s status, (b) potential impacts of the designation, (c) plans for improvement, and (d) any additional information deemed necessary by the local board.

If the school remains a qualifying school in Year 2, it is added to the watch list. That requires schools to send the same notice as the year before. In Year 3, if the school was on the watch list in the prior year and still meets the definition of a qualifying school, the school would be moved to a warning list. The school would remain on the warning list until it is either (a) no longer a qualifying school or (b) is transferred to the ISD.

In Year 4, if the school (a) was on the warning list in the prior year, (b) still meets the definition of a qualifying school, and (c) is one of the lowest 5 schools that meet the criteria in (a) and (b), as measured by school performance scores, the State Board then must select the school to transfer to the ISD.

Virtual Public School finds employment solution

North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) was on the verge earlier this year of having to temporarily lay off 220 of its teachers because of a state law regarding temporary employees. For years the school’s teachers have been hired as temporary workers. But temporary workers are supposed to work for no longer than 12 consecutive months without a break in service. DPI recently found out that the law applied to the virtual public school’s teachers, necessitating the temporary layoffs. 

The threat of layoff would have impacted 150 classes and 7,300 students. They avoided the setback this year thanks to a temporary fix, and now have worked out a long-term answer. Starting in June, NCVPS has come up with a long-term solution, splitting staff into two tracks. Director Liz Colbert said they sent surveys to employees to gauge solutions.

“The general feedback was very positive,” she said.

Board member Tabari Wallace spoke about the importance of NCVPS for offering supplemental classes that some schools, like his at West Craven High School, cannot offer. Student advisor Nate Koll-Tomberlin said he was able to take three years of Latin, a course not offered at his high school, thanks to NCVPS.

“The main thing I feel NCVPS provides students is availability and flexibility,” he said. “Latin was not offered at my school, but I was able to take it through NCVPS. I feel that this program fills a great role by providing students with a wide variety of classes that may not be offered at their school.”

He added, though, that he would not favor it as an alternative to face-to-face interactions with teachers.

“I am not an advocate for all of a student’s classes to be taken through NCVPS,” he said. “While I recognize some students have extraordinary circumstances that require them to take all of their courses online, for students without these extreme situations I do not believe in taking all online courses is a preferred option.”

New early college

North Carolina’s Cooperative Innovative High Schools, often referred to as early college high schools, are frequently among the state’s highest performing schools. Legislatively created to target first-generation college students, at-risk students, and kids in search of accelerated instruction, there are 133 statewide.

This week, the State Board approved the only application it received for a new early college high school this year – from Gaston Early College Medical Sciences High School. The high school would partner with Gaston College and focus on filling regional medical needs. The school is also partnering with CaroMont Health, a local employer, and would feature a transfer agreement with Belmont Abbey College allowing students to transition seamlessly to a bachelor’s degree program in a health science field.

If it is approved by the State Board of Community Colleges next month, it will be considered by the legislature along with supplemental funding for the seven early colleges that were approved the past two years but denied supplemental funding under past state budgets. Supplemental funding is money over-and-above traditional per pupil money given to every other public school. But for early colleges, the supplemental funding is critical given their low enrollment cap and the need for extra advisors to help students balance completing a high school diploma while earning two years of college credits.

Rupen Fofaria

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