What would a federal waiver mean for CCS state test results?

Posted 1/20/21

The State Board of Education approved on Jan. 7 a request asking the U.S. Dept. of Education to not hold N.C. schools and districts accountable for this year’s state exams.

If approved, that …

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What would a federal waiver mean for CCS state test results?

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The State Board of Education approved on Jan. 7 a request asking the U.S. Dept. of Education to not hold N.C. schools and districts accountable for this year’s state exams.

If approved, that federal waiver could allow for less than 95% participation rate among students due to COVID-19, and it would also allow individual districts increased flexibility in enforcing makeup exams for students who opted to take their exams at the end of next semester. Currently, there is no indication of when this waiver could be approved, said Kelly Batten, the executive director of Chatham County Schools Career & Technical Education.

“Unfortunately, this is statewide for all students,” Batten said regarding in-person state testing, which took place at CCS last week.

The district previously applied for a waiver last fall, Batten said, but Betsy DeVos, who was then the secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Education, issued multiple statements saying such waivers would be denied.

“The only thing that’s happened is the state has publicly said, we had we will continue to apply,” Batten said of the board’s Jan. 7 approval.

That approval came at a time when COVID-19 cases have soared following the holidays, with some parents expressing concern that state exams — typically worth 20% of a student’s final grade — could negatively impact students who are uncomfortable with taking an in-person exam.

“The state board, they did that action just to be very public,” Batten said. “It was bipartisan, that they absolutely believe in state tests, because it’s important to measure quality. But during the pandemic, they wanted to assure across North Carolina that this waiver was requested.”

If the waiver is approved, Batten said it’d be significant.

“It means that for those students, they’re not then faced with and our teachers aren’t faced with, how do we prepare students for essentially a makeup test at the end of the school year, for a course that they completed in January?” he said, referencing the state allowing students to take exams as late as June.

The district began communication with students in families regarding in-person testing and COVID-19 safety protocol in November, when it became clear a federal waiver would likely not be granted. It’s unclear how COVID-19 impacted student attendance of exams, Batten said, though he expects the district will have more information by early February.

Jordan-Matthews High School Principal Tripp Crayton said 88% of J-M students took their respective CTE state-mandated exams last week, with 86% taking their end-of-course exams. Crayton said the school was pleased that a majority of students, including those who are a part of the CCS Virtual Academy program, came to campus for testing.

“Based on state guidelines, students who did not test will be given the opportunity in the spring to take their state-mandated exam,” he said. “Until then, an incomplete will be noted as a final grade on their transcript until the test is completed by June 2021. These will be scheduled with students once the second semester begins, and we will continue to work with students and families with scheduling.”

“Our faculty and staff truly came together in welcoming our students,” Crayton added, “along with adhering to established protocols with enforcing the three Ws — wear a face-covering, wait at least six feet apart maintaining social distancing, and washing hands/using hand sanitizer regularly.”

Over the last few months, many parents have expressed concerns about the required in-person testing on social media and at prior CCS Board of Education meetings. Kimrey Rhinehardt, who has a daughter at Northwood High School, said that while she understands the state’s and district’s hands are tied, she wishes communication had been clearer.

CCS high school students, with the exception of those in Extended Content Standard E.C. courses, have not been back to in-person learning since last March — they’re slated to return on Feb. 1 under Plan B, a little over one week after the second semester begins. Rhinehardt’s daughter will remain on the Virtual Academy track.

“I think Northwood did a very good job based on what she told me, that they were in very small groups in classrooms that were spread out,” Rhinehardt said. “Our daughter was very anxious, and in her mind had mapped out a plan for how she would handle every single moment that she might encounter. I think she maintained that level of anxiety on top of what she normally would experience with testing anxiety — it was like a double whammy.”

Natalie Bell, a student in 11th grade at Northwood, said she felt her teachers communicated with students well. She attended one day of exams, and will be returning to hybrid in-person learning on Feb. 1.

“They did a wonderful job dealing with safety — the desks were six feet apart, we kept our masks on and they also provided hand sanitizer,” she said. “(In-person learning) will be great at long as they continue to do well with all the safety precautions.”

Batten said regardless of whether a federal waiver is granted, it’ll be important for teachers to examine their testing results to identify any learning gaps — particularly which units had the lowest grades, or at which points low remote engagement correlated with lower grades.

“The test results, at the designed mile-high view,” he said, “they’re really intended to just provide for an entire school or school system, ‘What’s the quality of curriculum implementation?’”

Rhinehardt said she felt the district’s communication “met the bare minimum requirements,” expressing concern that some families felt backed into a corner in taking the exams. Though her daughter felt safe once she arrived for testing, she was very anxious going into school, unsure of what testing would look like. Much of that anxiety could have been prevented, Rhinehardt said, if the district over reassured families worried about safety.

Still, she recognizes that there’s only so much the district could do about a federal policy.

“The state’s hands are completely tied with all of this, and this is a requirement that they must fulfill in accordance with federal law and the Devos Department of Education was not approving waivers and said that they wouldn’t,” she said. “All that to say that in terms of policy, I think that Congress needs to look at this particular emergency situation and build greater flexibility for states when it comes to this testing.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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