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State audit: North Carolina Virtual Public School courses need work

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

Some classes offered through North Carolina’s online public school portal aren’t meeting required content and design standards, just as traditional in-person instruction must meet them, state auditors said Tuesday.

The performance audit  from State Auditor Beth Wood examined courses offered by the North Carolina Virtual Public School, which was used by 32,000 middle and high school students during the 2018-19 school year. The Department of Public Instruction, which operates the virtual school program, disagreed with the audit’s chief findings.

The virtual school, developed in 2007, is popular with children who can’t take high-level or Advanced Placement courses in their local schools, or who have special needs or circumstances. Interest in online instruction have grown since the COVID-19 pandemic forced K-12 school buildings to close and for students to use video conferencing and other technology for classes.

More than 130 distinct courses were offered during 2018-19 through the virtual school, which was paid for with $18 million in state funds that went to local school districts and charter schools.

With the help of a third-party vendor, Xperience Education, auditors determined that eight of the 12 virtual school courses it evaluated didn’t meet required curriculum content.

Also, “there was no assurance that 11 of 12 (Virtual Public School) courses audited met adopted standards for rigor, increasing the risk that students may not master the course material,” the report said.

Courses that don’t meet North Carolina public school or College Board standards should be improved or removed from its offerings, auditors recommended, and that procedures be implemented to ensure adequate rigor.

In a written response attached to the audit, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson disagreed with the alleged curriculum shortcomings, calling the review “a subjective test” that failed to account for teacher quality, students or related instruction.

The department uses a national organization called Quality Matters to help set online instructional standards. Some online courses cited in the audit have been adjusted or will be, Johnson wrote.

The virtual public school office contracts with hundreds of licensed teacher and language coaches to develop and carry out courses online. Johnson’s letter provided a table showing Virtual Public School teachers have taught for 16 years on average, while two-thirds of them have master’s degrees or higher.

“High-quality instruction by a well-trained teacher is more important than course materials and textbooks,” Johnson wrote.

In a reply, Wood’s office said several assertions within Johnson’s response were “not true” or “misleading,” including Johnson’s use of Advanced Placement exam scores of virtual school students to evaluate course rigor.

Johnson did agree with the audit’s findings that formal evaluations of virtual school teachers weren’t performed consistently, and that some course content failed to be properly cited, which could lead to violations of copyrighted content. The department already has taken steps to address the issues, which were mentioned in previous audits, he wrote.

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