Students in the Wilkes County Schools will face fewer tests but will still must complete graduation projects to graduate from high school.

The “Testing Reduction Act of 2019,” signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on Sept. 5, prohibited school districts from requiring senior graduation projects unless they reimburse “economically disadvantaged” students up to $75 per student for costs incurred with their projects. The law requires using local rather than state funds for reimbursements.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said Monday that the Wilkes school district “plans to continue to require the graduation project. A process is being developed for eligible students to request the reimbursement.”

Byrd said Wilkes high school students who applied for and were approved for free and reduced lunch, or those who directly served through a state agency will be eligible for the reimbursement.

He said the school system’s child nutrition program is “finalizing these numbers” to determine approximately how many Wilkes students will be eligible for being reimbursed up to $75 per project. “This is a one-time reimbursement, and if the project is to be completed during the senior year, our plan would be to pay upon completion.

Explaining why he projects will remain a requirement for graduation here, Wilkes Board of Education Chairman Rudy Holbrook said, “I think they’re a good thing and will help them (students) in life, for example when they have to go for a job interview. It helps prepare them for careers.”

There hasn’t been a Wilkes Board of Education meeting since Cooper signed the legislation (Senate Bill 621) reducing the number of tests and prohibiting school systems from making graduation projects a requirement for graduation unless making the reimbursements.

At one time, the state required that all seniors statewide complete a graduation project to graduate from high school. Wilkes was among school systems that continued requiring graduation projects when the state no longer made them mandatory several years ago.

Wilkes was one of 39 out of 115 school districts in the state, plus nine charter schools, that required graduation projects before the “Testing Reduction Act of 2019” was signed into law. These 39 also included the Surry County, Elkin City, Mount Airy City and Iredell-Statesville school districts. The school boards in several school districts voted to no longer require them because of the law enacted early this month.

Four components

Graduation projects required in the Wilkes high schools have four components:

• a research paper that is generally completed during a student’s English IV class (senior year). It must have a word count of at least 1,850 words. The exact requirements of the paper may vary depending on whether the student is enrolled in English IV Honors or Standard English IV;

• a product/project completed in the student’s chosen topic area. Students must show that they learned something new with this. Projects vary greatly depending on topics. The product must reflect at least 15 hours of student work, and each student is responsible for acquiring an outside mentor for guidance;

• a portfolio must be completed by the student as work progresses on the product. This is designed to document the student’s work through reflective writing pieces, work logs, photographs and in other ways. A faculty advisor and mentor helps students fill out required forms and decide if more documentation is needed;

• upon completion of the first three components, each student must create an oral presentation to showcase his or her project near the end of the semester in which the student takes English IV. This is presented to a panel of judges consisting of teachers, parents, community members, business leaders or others. In addition to the student’s speech, the presentation includes visual aids, the product or evidence of the product and a component using technology.

N.C. Final Exams ended

The new law also eliminates the N.C. Final Exams beginning in the 2020-21 school year. This consists of more than 20 state tests given to students of teachers who can’t use other state exams to evaluate teacher performance. The tests are given in a range of grades, but mainly in high school.

The elimination of the N.C. Final Exams raises new questions about how the state will gather data in the future to evaluate its teachers.

Therefore, the new law calls for the State Board of Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to submit to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee a plan on how the state will collect data to evaluate teacher performance and professional growth moving forward.

The state will test the N.C. Personalized Assessment Tool over the next five years to replace the end-of-grade tests given in reading and math in grades 3-8. Instead of a big test in each subject at the end of the school year, students will receive three shorter tests per subject during the year.

The new law also requires that school districts reduce the number of local tests they give if students spend more time on them than state exams.

The legislation incorporated in the new law was drafted by the legislature in response to repeated complaints that students are over-tested.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Republican from North Wilkesboro who authored the House version of the legislation before a bipartisan plan was released, said earlier that he believes the bill that passed is a fair compromise. Elmore added that it wasn’t as aggressive as the House plan he wrote.

Elmore also said that using local funding to reimburse each student up to $75 for his or her cost of a senior project was a fair compromise that should help children from low income households.

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