Durham Public Schools held a meeting Monday evening to discuss changes made last year to North Carolina’s public school curriculum.
Community members watched an hour-long presentation on the intended effects of the changes at the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability. Among the most controversial modifications are an increase in the score required to pass state exams and the elimination of SAT preparation—to be replaced by preparation for the ACT. The discussion was led by James Key, DPS superintendent for high school curriculum, instruction and school improvement.
“The teachers haven’t changed, the students haven’t changed, we [just] expect them to know more and do more,” Key said.
In addition to the standardized testing and score changes, students must now take common state exams at the end of each year for every course subject taught in the classroom. Although exams administered in class throughout the year will be instructor-written, the final common exam will be written by the state and streamlined for all N.C. public school students taking the same course, Key said.
The program changes are intended to emphasize critical thinking and enhance students’ skills for their future academic careers, Key noted. Although students may be able to name Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president, they also need to be able to defend who their favorite president is and why that is the case, Key added.
Some parents were less enthusiastic about the changes.
Jeff McLaurin, a Durham father with a child in middle school, said the additional standardized testing could put certain children at a disadvantage. He noted that although the number of assessments each year is overwhelming, increased testing can help prepare students for future testing in specific career fields.
“When you take the Bar [exam] or the CPA [exam], it will help to have had practice in school,” McLaurin said. “But 14… it’s just too many.”
The common exams were implemented for the first time at the end of last year. Key said he was surprised at how low scores were. He attributed the poor performance to the fact that teachers were not allowed to see the exams before students.
“We took feedback from teachers about all the tests,” Key said. “They had a question on the world history test about climate. That shouldn’t have been on the world history test, it should have been on the earth science test.”
Key noted that DPS considered going against the state testing requirements, but were told they would not receive state funding if they chose to disregard N.C. laws.
“Right now, we are bound,” Key said. “We debated… what would happen if we just said we’re not going to subject our students to these. We were told-, ‘We feel your pain… but we are getting a lot of funds from the federal government and it’s going to be harder for you to operate without [them.]’”
But Key said it is possible Governor Pat McCrory will change the testing policies in light of public concern.
“It looks like the pendulum is swinging a little bit,” Key said. “Our governor has heard that…some people think we are testing kids too much and [we need] to dial that back.”
Shashawn Anderson, a Durham mother who has put multiple children through the public school system, said she does not feel these changes are as important as they have been made out to be.
“Every year, they say, ‘Oh, we’ve made big changes,’” Anderson said. “But I’ve been through this before, and they said that two years ago and two years before that.”