Brace yourselves: this week’s journal provides the third entry in my legislative round-up. As the number of bills introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly soars past the 2,700 mark, several new pieces of legislation are drawing increased scrutiny from parents and educators. Education bills currently under consideration run the gamut: attempting to lengthen the school year, raise the compulsory age of school attendance, and mandate a nationally-normed achievement test. Here are all of the need-to-know details.
Legislation to tinker with the length of the school year already has a contentious history. In 2004, a group of frustrated parents coalesced in a battle to preserve summers for public school students. Having struck out with intransigent school boards, parents took their case directly to Raleigh. Their politically savvy grassroots campaign, Save Our Summers, (along with a user-friendly website) threw the State Board of Education, Department of Public Instruction, and the North Carolina School Board Association completely off kilter. The result was a new law instructing systems to begin school no earlier than August 25th and end no later than June 10th. In the process, the law eliminated five teacher workdays without reducing pay.
Having enjoyed a brief time of sunny implementation, this issue is now back in five separate bills, all attempting to weaken the current law. Some bills promote waivers to particular systems or even any system in the state; others permit schools to move the acceptable start date up as early as August 8th. Citizens and parents who joined together to pressure legislators to pass the law in 2004 are hard at work to preserve it.
Another issue that’s front and center for lawmakers is raising the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 17 years old. Abysmally low graduation rates have some policy makers convinced that forcing disenfranchised students to stay in school one more year would increase their commitment to graduate. Currently, most statesrequire student attendance up to age 16; however, there is a growing trend to mandate more years. But there’s a down side to this kind of thinking: is it really in anyone’s best interests to require disruptive, disengaged students to continue on? Will one more year accomplish what 11+ school years could not, magically turning the tide of educational disaffection? If we’re really serious about keeping kids engaged in school, it makes far more sense to enforce existing truancy laws and employ more effective teaching methods.
While the above issues have garnered much of the spotlight, another lesser-known legislative goal will have a far greater impact on student achievement. Currently, North Carolina administers End of Grade tests (assessed in third through eighth grade) and high school End of Course tests; these exams have elicited criticism for years, since they provide parents with an incomplete and unclear picture of their child’s academic performance. These tests also fail to illuminate students’ strengths and weaknesses in particular concepts.
Some legislators are intent on reforming the state’s testing program by requiring a nationally-normed achievement test. Three bills, H494, S450, and S1322, call for the Department of Public Instruction to stop developing their own assessments and return to the use of a nationally-recognized achievement test. Obviously, implementing a nationally-standardized test isn’t a panacea for all of our educational ills; nevertheless, it would provide parents with a more useful, reliable evaluation tool to examine student achievement.
Whatever you do in the weeks ahead, keep your eyes on Raleigh. It would behoove all of us to track legislative activities closely – after all, such are the demands of democracy. As Irish statesman John Philpot Curran observed, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
To learn more about education legislation as well as the latest education news, visit the Alliance online at www.nceducationalliance.org. Check out the “Headlines” section of our home page, updated daily with articles from every major newspaper in the state. At the Alliance, we are committed to keeping you informed and empowered as we join together to improve education for the children of North Carolina.