NC to let gifted students get credit without taking classes

khui@newsobserver.comDecember 20, 2013 

  • How it works

    Under the Credit By Demonstrated Mastery program, students have to go through a two-phase process to get high school credit without enrolling in a course.

    • In the first phase, a student must score a 94 or higher on an exam for that course.

    • In phase two, students must show they can apply their knowledge, such as giving a performance for music credit or being interviewed by a foreign-language teacher in that language for that credit.

Gifted students will be able to get high school credit in the near future without having to enroll in some classes, changing a long-standing requirement in North Carolina’s public schools.

No later than spring 2015 – and possibly this spring in some school districts – students will be able to take exams in some courses they haven’t enrolled in to show that they know the material well enough to get credit.

But some school leaders are worried that the new program could let students “game the system” to raise their grade-point average and could devalue the role of teachers in the learning process.

“We need to be forceful about this being a good thing for a very small universe of students, and it’s not there to game the system,” Wake County school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said at this week’s board meeting.

Supporters of the new Credit By Demonstrated Mastery program say it helps students by not requiring them to sit through a course where they’ve already mastered the material.

“The goal is to ensure that students are in the right and appropriate learning environment for their growth,” said Sneha Shah-Coltrane, director of Gifted Education and Advanced Programs for the state Department of Public Instruction.

Shah-Coltrane said the program was developed because school districts wanted guidance in how to place gifted students. As an example, she cited how one school district was grappling with where to place an eighth-grade student in English who had a perfect score on the ACT college admission exam.

About 20 states already allow gifted students to get credit without having to take courses, Shah-Coltrane added.

Under the rules adopted by the State Board of Education, students in grades six through 12 can seek credit in 159 standard-level high school courses covering a wide range of subjects. Healthful living, Advanced Placement, honors, International Baccalaureate and some career and technical education courses are not eligible.

Shah-Coltrane said that although not many students are expected to take advantage of the program, there are enough who would benefit.

“If there is a child that believes there’s a course they’ve already mastered and can demonstrate it, why should they take it?” she said. “They should be in a course that is more rigorous.”

Originally, school districts were required to begin letting students test for the credit in the spring semester, with placement affecting the 2014-15 school year. But the State Board of Education voted Dec. 5 to allow school districts to delay implementation by a year.

Some districts wait

Wake, Johnston County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro are among the school systems that have decided to wait a year. Durham, Orange County and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system haven’t made a decision yet.

“We are going to take the additional year to appropriately plan in order to implement an appropriate and successful model for our school system,” said Rodney Peterson, chief academic officer for the Johnston County school system. “We also want to be able to adequately inform and educate our parents and students on new process.”

Wake school board members raised several questions about the program this week.

One concern is that schools must come up with a local test in courses that don’t have a state exam. Benton called it an “unfunded mandate” because the state isn’t providing money for teachers to develop and grade the tests.

Shah-Coltrane said the state is giving flexibility about what local tests can be used. That can include allowing a teacher to use an existing exam, she added.

Todd Wirt, Wake’s assistant superintendent for academics, said the school system will develop standardized tests to be used across the entire district because principals want consistency.

Wake school board member Jim Martin questioned how a student could give a performance to meet the requirements of say, an orchestra class, without enrolling.

“Now that makes no sense to me, because orchestra is a participatory, very team process,” Martin said. “How do I test out of something like that? That just makes no sense whatsoever, and I think there are other classes that fit that as well.”

Boosting class rank

A concern raised by Benton and Martin is that students can use it as a way to boost their class rank.

Students would only be given a “pass” grade with these credits, so they wouldn’t count toward a GPA. But Martin noted that the program could allow a student to place out of standard-level courses, then take more honors and Advanced Placement courses that would raise their GPA.

“This is yet another situation where we’re going to create a possibility to game the system by getting standard-level courses out of the way so you can do higher-point courses,” Martin said. “It is a GPA issue we need to pay attention to.”

For Benton, a retired teacher and principal, the new program takes away the creativity, the originality and the sharing of ideas that students have from being in a class.

“It’s devaluing the impact (of) a quality teacher and the experiences that they provide students in the classroom, the exchange of ideas, the enrichment activities,” Benton said.

But Shah-Coltrane said Credit By Demonstrated Mastery shows the state is valuing teachers by having them work with students who want more rigorous material that will challenge them.

Wake school administrators recommended the one-year delay after saying there’s not enough time because of the holidays to properly communicate with parents about the new opportunity. The school board backed the delay.

“We absolutely support what this is trying to do,” Wirt said. “We have a population of students in Wake County that can certainly benefit from this process. But we would prefer to do it well and communicate it well.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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