• The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has begun the process of revising state science and health standards
  • The public will have multiple opportunities to offer feedback in the coming months
  • North Carolinians interested in evaluating academic standards should consider the following components: rigor, specificity, sequentiality, clarity, focus, measurability, relevance, alignment, impartiality, evidentiality, interdisciplinarity, and adaptability

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) recently created all-stakeholder surveys for those interested in offering input “to inform revision decisions, which may include changes, clarifications, additions, deletions, or replacements” of the existing K-12 science and health standards. This preliminary survey merely provides a starting point for the standards writing teams that will begin their work this summer. The public will have multiple opportunities to offer feedback as the writing teams publish drafts of their work in the coming months. 

Individuals interested in submitting comments may find the process of assessing science and health standards to be overwhelming. The survey asks respondents to rate and comment on each standard in each grade, undoubtedly a daunting task for even the most motivated or knowledgeable stakeholder. Parents should not be dissuaded from offering input, however, because the stakes may be very high. Biological sex, gender, and climate change will likely be among the contentious issues being debated as part of these standards.

Fortunately, lawmakers adopted a series of requirements that North Carolinians can use as a starting point for assessing academic standards. 

What Are Academic Standards?

According to the DPI, standards “define what students are expected to know and be able to do by the end of each school year or course.” In general, standards are grade- and subject-specific outlines of the content, concepts, and skills that state education officials expect all educators to cover during the academic year. In contrast, the curriculum is specific course content either developed by the teacher or obtained from an external source. Teachers may use different curricula as long as they align them to the standards established for that subject and grade.  

The process of revising and approving new academic standards takes around one year to complete. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt and DPI staff codified the process in an internal procedures manual that advances four guiding principles: feedback-based, research-informed, improvement-oriented, and process-driven. This thoughtful approach should help North Carolina avoid a repeat of a few notable missteps, including the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010 and objectionable modifications of the social studies standards in 2010 and 2021.

Evaluating State Standards

General Statute § 115C-12 (9c) empowers the North Carolina State Board of Education to develop content standards for all core academic areas in grades K-12. The board must consider the following six characteristics: 

  1. Rigor: reflect high expectations for students and an in-depth mastery of the content
  2. Specificity: clearly grounded in the content of each academic area 
  3. Sequentiality: defined grade-by-grade and course-by-course 
  4. Clarity: understandable to parents and teachers
  5. Focus: developed in full recognition of the time available to teach the core academic areas at each grade level 
  6. Measurability: measurable, whenever possible, in a reliable, valid, and efficient manner for accountability purposes

High school content standards have two additional statutory requirements:

  • Relevance: knowledge and skills necessary to pursue further postsecondary education or to attain employment in the 21st-century economy  
  • Alignment: aligned with the minimum undergraduate course requirements for admission to the constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina

Some of these eight characteristics are more relevant than others. Rigor, specificity, clarity, focus, and relevance are essential attributes of high-quality standards. Sequentiality is a given. And the importance of measurability varies by grade and subject. The state does not impose standardized testing requirements for health or physical education. Statewide science assessments occur in fifth grade, eighth grade, and high school (Biology). Students in eleventh grade take the ACT, which includes a science component.

I would argue that stakeholders consider four additional considerations not spelled out in state statute:

  • Impartiality: fair treatment of divergent political viewpoints, ideologies, and belief systems
  • Evidentiality: use of empirical data, facts, and the scientific method whenever possible and appropriate
  • Interdisciplinarity: use of insights from the arts, humanities, social sciences, and the professions that inform scientific inquiry
  • Adaptability: ability to meet the needs of students at various ability levels

Overall, standards should lead to an appreciation of the complexity both of natural processes and human institutions. Whenever possible, standards should acknowledge that humans cannot solve complex problems with simplistic solutions that ignore costs and tradeoffs.