EdNC: State Board of Education changes graduation, K-12 grading requirements due to COVID-19

[file photo by Alex Granados/EducationNC]

By Alex Granados, senior reporter, EducationNC
The State Board of Education came up with grading guidance for schools during a conference call meeting Friday as it seeks to help shape education in a state where schools are closed through May 15 and students are learning remotely.

In a nutshell, schools will be able to provide grades assuming they can adhere to certain “critical factors” that make up the state’s definition of remote learning. Seniors, on the other hand, would get a pass or withdrawal for any spring classes based on their performance up until schools closed on March 13. If they were failing as of March 13, then the students can use remote learning to try to get their grades up to passing.

The state Department of Public Instruction has defined remote learning as the following: “Learning that takes place outside of the traditional school setting using various media and formats, such as but not limited to: video conference, telephone conference, print material, online material, or learning management systems.”

The department also lists critical factors that should be met for effective remote learning. Remote learning is effective when it:

  • is accessible by all students for which the learning is intended and is responsive to diverse learning groups;
  • maintains consistent communication between instructional staff and students;
  • addresses the curricular and instructional needs associated with appropriate standards;
  • includes evidence of student learning; and,
  • considers the whole child as well as the home learning environment.

In grades K-5, districts and charter schools can evaluate students the way they normally would if those critical factors are met. However, for grades K-5, the emphasis is not on grades. Rather, it will be up to districts and charters whether they give grades.

“LEAs/Charters will focus on supporting student progress and communicating feedback to students and families rather than on assigning grades,” the recommendation states.

In grades 6-11, students can be given grades if the critical factors for effective remote learning are met.

And for seniors, a GPA will be calculated as normal for the fall semester. As mentioned above, they will get a pass or withdrawal for the spring semester depending on their grades up to March 13, with the chance to improve a failing grade via remote learning. The focus is to help seniors meet the minimum graduation requirements of 22 credits.

Board member J.B. Buxton said that the recommendations were vetted with post-secondary admissions offices around the state to ensure a smooth transition for seniors.

Sneha Shah-Coltrane, director of Advanced Learning and Gifted Education at the state Department of Public Instruction, said that if kids return to school in May, local districts and their staff will figure out how to assign grades. If school buildings don’t reopen, the state will come up with guidance.

Grades are not meant to negatively impact students during this time, according to Shah-Coltrane. If a teacher can’t ensure all students in a class have access to remote learning, then grades won’t be given to that class. However, it is necessary for teachers to continue to provide feedback and evaluation so that student growth continues, she said.

Istation contract

The State Board of Education voted again to table an extension of a short-term contract with Istation, the reading diagnostic tool used in elementary schools in the state. The state has a contract with Istation that expires at the end of March, and the new contract would be $1.2 million to extend the contract until July. The short-term contracts are necessary because of a legal dispute over the original 3-year contract approved by the State Board of Education. The dispute has to do with the procurement process and whether Istation was fairly picked over competitor Amplify, which previously did reading diagnostics in the state.

Board Vice Chair Alan Duncan suggested tabling the decision — which was also tabled last month — because the state is going to seek a number of waivers from the General Assembly. Istation was contracted with to fulfill Read to Achieve requirements for formative reading assessments. If those obligations are waived, it may not be necessary to use Istation this year.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson argued that the Board should go ahead and approve the contract. He said that Istation has agreed to provide remote learning instruction free of charge to children in grades K-3 in certain subjects. But beyond that, he said that students received their mid-year diagnostics right before schools closed because of COVID-19. He said it will be important, if school opens back up, for there to be a tool in place to do a diagnostic check-up and see how students are doing.

Buxton pushed back on Johnson’s argument.

“If, for a second, we assume that we’re not going back to school and that we’re not going to be able to deliver this diagnostic and the General Assembly is going to waive this, then we are spending $1.2 million on at-home resources that are proliferating right now,” he said.

Board member Olivia Oxendine argued that not renewing the contract — which would effectively cut off students’ access to Istation come April — just adds more uncertainty to an already uncertain situation.

“I will find it very difficult to table any action … especially now folks, when everything is in mayhem … I just can’t imagine introducing something as disruptive to our school systems in grades K-3, to disrupt consistent, uniform, standards-based reading instruction,” she said.

Johnson also pointed out that the money for the contract can’t be spent elsewhere. It either gets spent on this contract or it sits in “Raleigh.”

Ultimately, the Board voted 8-2 to table the contract vote.

Flexible spending

The State Board of Education also voted on a way to distribute $50 million in flexible funding for districts struggling with COVID-19 to use on things such as remote learning and child nutrition.

Ultimately, the Board decided that 50% of the funds would be distributed based on the number of impoverished children in a district or school with the rest of the funds being awarded based on allotted average daily membership — essentially the population count of a school.

Chair’s comments

State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis spoke at the top of the meeting about the challenges facing the state’s schools and how educators are rising to meet them.

“Our schools are the very heartbeats of our communities,” he said. “COVID-19 has changed our nation and our lives in monumental ways.”

Davis said that while certain items such as educator and staff pay and calendar flexibility weren’t discussed at the State Board today, Board members are busy working with the state Department of Public Instruction and the General Assembly to address those concerns. He also said that the value of schools has become even more apparent during these troubling times.

“Schools provide the very foundation of our society. Yes, our schools provide academics, but so much more — comfort, care, meals, consistency, and deep abiding relationships,” he said.

He said districts and educators have worked hard to provide remote learning to students, and they shouldn’t ease up now.

“We encourage you to continue those efforts,” he said. “To expand your efforts to reach more students. And to enhance the effectiveness of remote teaching and learning as we learn to teach in new ways.”