Members of the NC General Assembly stand in this April file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) NC General Assembly
Members of the NC General Assembly stand in this April file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

COVID is booming. Some parents and educators want NC to back off on a plan for students to take standardized tests in-person.

The coronavirus might be booming in North Carolina, but state officials are still set to go through with a plan to require in-person End of Course (EOC) tests for high schoolers in mid-December. 

The mandatory tests are already high stakes for students, accounting for 20% of their grade, but state rules also require the tests be taken in person. That’s a risk some parents and educators say is unacceptable in the midst of a pandemic.

Indeed, groups like NC Families for Testing Reform, an advocacy group of parents and educators, took to social media in a Tuesday night “Twitter Storm” to spread the word about the dangers in-person EOCs pose.

“We’ve been virtual all year,” Durham teacher Bryan Christopher posted on Twitter. “Makes no sense to bring the kids back just to take a test.” 

On Wednesday morning, the group delivered a petition with over 4,700 signatures to the State Board of Education. Their goal is to convince the board to ask state lawmakers to nix the in-person requirement for EOCs.

The standardized tests, designed to assess both individual and group knowledge and skills, are required by the federal government, although it’s up to each state to set the rules. 

So far, despite a resurgence in the potentially deadly virus, the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature has not yet changed the two things it can – the percentage of the grade the test covers, and the test’s in-person requirement.

“When the federal government decided not to provide waivers, our state General Assembly decided not to change any of the testing requirements,” says Susan Book, who sits on the leadership committee of NC Families for Testing Reform. “Their inaction might actually kill people.”

High Point Democrat Cecil Brockman is the vice chair of the state House education committee. In a statement Tuesday, he told Cardinal & Pine that he’s hoping the legislature will offer more flexibility to school systems on testing.

“Over the past few months, I have heard concerns from stakeholders about how schools will be able to administer tests amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brockman said. “I support the General Assembly and the Education Committee examining ways to increase flexibility and alleviate some of the pressure around testing for this school year.”

Parting gift from Betsy DeVos?

Although the Trump administration suspended standardized testing requirements in March and April, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sent state leaders a letter in September saying her department would enforce testing requirements for schools despite the pandemic.

“Research shows that school closures this past spring disproportionately affected the most vulnerable students, widening disparities in achievement for low-income students, minority students, and students with disabilities,” DeVos wrote. “Almost every student experienced some level of disruption. Moving forward, meeting the needs of all students will require tremendous effort. To be successful, we must use data to guide our decision-making.” 

As Politico reported, DeVos’ decision did not go over well with many education leaders across the country, even among K-12 officials in DeVos’ party.

“It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom, and will be a detriment to public education,” Richard Woods, the GOP superintendent of schools in Georgia, said in September. 

Some teachers and parents in NC are riled too, particularly as it concerns high school students.

If an EOC is supposed to indicate a drop-off in learning, it would make no sense to test a high school student, says Renee Sekel, a mother of three from Cary with a 15-year-old daughter in high school. Like all high schoolers in Wake County, Sekel’s daughter has been attending classes virtually. 

Each year high schoolers take new classes, which they didn’t have the year before. In those cases, a test wouldn’t be measuring anything as compared to other years, Sekel says. It would only measure how one student performed one particular year in one specific class. 

“If we have to have this exam, at least let [the kids] take it from home,” Sekel said.

Being able to track student progress is essential for our educators,” Brockman says. “However, results that are rushed or incomplete due to increased health protocols won’t help anybody, especially not our students.”. 

Sekel also questioned the wisdom of sending remote-learning students into an enclosed room in December.

“That’s three weeks after Thanksgiving holiday, where apparently people didn’t show much in the way of restraint,” Sekel said.

Book agrees. The mother of a fifth-grader on the autism spectrum, Book’s son attends class half days, but Book keeps most of his learning and other class activities virtual – and safe at home.

“The state said you [could] choose the virtual academy, to keep your kids safe at home,” Susan Book said. “But they never mentioned, ‘Except for testing!’”

The NC Families for Testing Reform’s Twitter storm and their petition were meant to make the public and the school board aware of the health hazards raised by in-person testing in a pandemic.

“We know for a fact, high school students carry the virus like any other adults,” Book said. “We’re sending them into an enclosed space for a specific time. That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

Book hoped the board could be persuaded to ask lawmakers to rescind the in-person requirement, and lower the 20% of the grade covered by the test to a negligible amount.

While the board may be unable to enact those changes,Book said that the board’s voices could amplify the call for testing reform.

Sekel says reformers should expect very little from the GOP-controlled General Assembly. Top lawmakers such as Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger have been outspoken in their support for returning students to classrooms while Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has given local districts options for reopening either virtually or in-person. 

They’ll do nothing,” Sekel  said. “They’re absent. They’ll send our kids and our teachers into the building to get sick and possibly die. And they’ll watch and they’ll wait. But they won’t help at all.”

“I don’t care if it is a statewide bill, or an executive order, but we need action on this issue now,” Book said. “Our students shouldn’t be left with the choice of a bad grade or risk of infection.”