A remote classroom in Denver, Colo., in August. Some teachers and parents are fired up about plans to return students to classrooms in NC for federally required end-of-year testing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) NC Schools Coronavirus
A remote classroom in Denver, Colo., in August. Some teachers and parents are fired up about plans to return students to classrooms in NC for federally required end-of-year testing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Many parents and educators are fired up about plans to force students back into classrooms for federally-required tests.

North Carolina’s incoming state schools superintendent says she understands parents’ and teachers’ concerns about returning to classrooms amid COVID-19’s deadliest spike yet, but she said the decision is out of her hands. 

Catherine Truitt, who won election as NC’s top K-12 administrator in November, said the North Carolina General Assembly is in charge of how the tests are administered.

“I would love to say (we’ll do) what I would like, but there are policies in place that I’m not in a position to change right now,” Truitt told Cardinal & Pine. “I definitely feel parents who have chosen to keep their children in a virtual-only learning environment should not be required to come back for testing.”

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As Cardinal & Pine has reported, standardized tests are required by the federal government, but how they are administered is determined by each individual state. 

The North Carolina legislature has so far declined to change two of the rules under its purview—the in-person testing requirement and the percentage of a student’s overall grade tied to the test. Right now, standardized tests account for 20% of a student’s grade.

Superintendent-elect Catherine Truitt
NC’s Superintendent-elect Catherine Truitt says a plan to return students to classrooms for end-of-year testing is out of her hands. (Image via Truitt’s campaign)

Not Many Options for Parents, Educators

The Trump administration suspended standardized testing requirements in March and April, but US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos informed states in September that the department would enforce those requirements this school year.

“What we have is a combination of federally mandated guidelines that are tied to federal dollars, as well as state-mandated guidelines that are part of the rules and statutes that can’t be changed very quickly,” said Truitt, a Republican who won a narrow victory last month. Truitt will be sworn in in January. Outgoing Superintendent Mark Johnson has been quiet about the testing controversy in his final weeks in office.

With COVID-19 cases surging in North Carolina, parents and educators have appealed to the General Assembly to change those rules. Truitt said that there isn’t a secured virtual testing option available right now, but there is an alternative that students could possibly take rather than returning to the classroom now.

“One option parents need to know is they do not have to have their children, nor does the school need to require them, to take an end of grade or end of year test now,” she said. “They can wait until June 30, which is less than ideal from a student’s standpoint because they might not remember the material as well.”

That might be the only alternative for parents and students, as Republicans in the General Assembly, who hold a majority, have been vocal about returning students to in-person learning.

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger said in September that students should be returning to face-to-face instruction. 

“Virtual learning is a slow-motion train wreck,” Berger said at a news conference. “It’s a slow-motion train wreck from which Harvard’s public health experts are telling us that some children will never recover.”

Nevertheless, NC’s coronavirus cases have been surging at an alarming rate, particularly since the Thanksgiving holiday. Gov. Roy Cooper announced new COVID restrictions, including a nightly curfew, Tuesday. 

“The virus is upon us with a rapid viciousness like we haven’t seen before,” Cooper said Tuesday. “Even though we’re all frustrated and weary of the fight, it’s more important than ever to take this virus seriously.”

NC Coronavirus Map By County (Dec. 8)
Eight out of 10 NC counties have critical or substantial COVID-19 spread, according to NC DHHS.

The governor has been more circumspect about K-12 classroom time, allowing local districts to make their own decision about virtual or in-person schooling. That excludes required federal testing however. 

Truitt said she believes that as long as schools follow the protocols established by the NC Department of Health and Human Services such as mask requirements and social distancing, students can return to classrooms safely. But she admits that even with those guidelines, there have been cases of COVID in schools, mostly among adults.

“Even though we are seeing a spike in numbers in positive cases in the community, we have not had any super-spreader events, we have not had an increased number of cases in schools,” she said. “But we’re still seeing adults bringing COVID to school and then not following guidelines.”

Truitt said she understands that some parents and educators don’t want to be forced to return to the classroom for standardized testing, but she also feels that ultimately, they’re all on the same page in wanting students back at school as long as it’s safe.

“I feel confident that the majority of parents and teachers do want their children to return to school safely because we know that children learn better in school,” she said.