Mark Johnson’s rocky tenure comes to a close in familiar fashion

Mark Johnson’s rocky tenure comes to a close in familiar fashion

- in Education, Top Story

State Superintendent Mark Johnson will end his tenure this month the same way he started it four years ago – at odds with the State Board of Education. 

The state board’s decision to require high school students and some middle school students to take End-of-Course exams in person during the pandemic is the most recent point of contention between the controversial superintendent and the board.   

Johnson believes the tests should be waived, along with the rule that makes the exams 20% of a student’s grade 

“[SBE] Chairman Eric Davis and the next State Superintendent, Catherine Truitt, disagree with my position and have declared that the State Board’s EOC rule is in effect regardless,” Johnson wrote in an email he shared this week. “This has put your local superintendents, school boards, and principals in difficult situations without consistent guidance on how to proceed.” 

Johnson said the NC Rules Review Commission has received a record number of objections to the testing requirement. The commission is charged with reviewing and approving rules adopted by state agencies. 

The 20% rule will be subject to legislative review, Johnson said. 

“Based on state law, it is my position that the rule should be delayed,” Johnson wrote. I recognize that some students and educators have legitimate health concerns, and I don’t think we need to force them to worry about testing in person right now,” Johnson said. 

Johnson’s statements about testing requirements drew this joint response from Davis and Truitt, saying “Johnson’s message is incorrect.”

“We are taking the unprecedented action of writing to you directly to correct the confusion arising from Mark Johnson’s recent misleading messages regarding End-of-Course testing,” the two wrote in their statement to parents and educators.  

Davis and Truitt explained that the 20% rule will remain in effect. 

State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis

“The rule has not been delayed,” the two said. “The 20% policy was adopted many years ago, in part, to encourage participation to comply with federal testing requirements.”

The state board will reconsider enforcing the 20% rule if it is granted a waiver from federal requirements for school districts to administer EOC exams, Davis and Truitt said. 

The SBE expanded the testing window this year so school districts can safely administer the EOC exams in person this fall, spring and summer, they said.  

“The Board and Superintendent-elect encourage all districts to exercise this expanded window option,” the two wrote. “With the expanded testing window, districts can delay the EOC fall administration to sometime up to June 2021.” 

Davis and Truitt said Johnson is aware of the actions taken by the state board to ensure tests can be taken in-person safely. 

Superintendent-elect Catherine Truitt

“Johnson’s decision to ignore that message and deliberately sow confusion around the administration of EOC tests this fall is a serious disservice to North Carolina students,” they said.

The EOCs come as the state experiences record numbers of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. The NC Department of Health and Human Services reported 5,786 new cases today. There have been 6,065 deaths, according to state health officials. 

On Tuesday, the Wake County Public Schools System, the state’s largest school district, announced that it will return to online-only classes Jan. 4-15 in response to “substantial” community spread following the Thanksgiving holiday. 

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools also announced a return to online-only instruction this week in response to increasing spread of the virus in the county. 

Annual standardized tests are required by the state and federal governments to assess school and student performance. They may also be used to make decisions about performance bonuses for teachers and principals. 

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos waived the exams last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, she has said she will not waive them this year. The incoming administration could rule differently after President-elect Joe Biden takes office Jan. 20. 

In an odd twist, Johnson finds himself in agreement with some of his harshest critics — North Carolina’s teachers — about the testing mandate. Many of them also believe testing requirements should be waived out of concerns for the health and safety of educators and students. 

“Regardless of whether his [Johnson’s] real motivation is doing right by our students, flipping the State Board one last bird or some combination of the two, I appreciate Superintendent Johnson encouraging our leaders to think outside the box and take bold action on testing,” said Justin Parmenter, an English teacher with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. 

Parmenter has frequently criticized Johnson on his popular blog “Notes From the Chalkboard.”     

Like many of the state’s teachers, Parmenter doesn’t think the tests are worth the risk of returning to school buildings. 

“Standardized tests administered under these conditions are very unlikely to yield useful data, but they put all those involved at elevated risk of exposure to COVID at a time when the virus has never presented a greater threat,” Parmenter said. “There has been way too much buck passing and trepidation by leaders at every level of government on this issue, and our staff and students are paying the price.” 

Last week, NC Families for School Testing Reform and other advocacy groups expressed opposition to in-person testing during the pandemic and the mandate to bring students back to schools for EOCs. 

The groups held a webinar asking the state board to suspend the tests, or at a minimum waive the rule that makes the exams count for 20% of a student’s grade. 

“I think that this data that we’re so hungry for isn’t going to tell us anything at the end of the day,” Ilina Ewen, a Wake County parent with two sons in high school, said during the webinar. “Any data from this pandemic year is going to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.” 

Johnson took office Jan. 1, 2017, after narrowly defeating incumbent June Atkinson in the 2016 General Election. 

The disagreement over the testing requirement caps a rocky four years during which Johnson and the state board were frequently at odds over the powers of the superintendent, education policy and the awarding of state contracts.  

After taking office, Johnson and the state board immediately became mired in a power struggle that led to a lengthy legal battle. It eventually ended with the state Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which reassigned the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers that had been held by the state board to Johnson. 

The relationship further deteriorated as the case worked its way through the courts. 

It boiled over after Johnson unilaterally awarded an $8.3 million state contract to Istation to assess K-3 reading levels. Amplify, an Istation competitor, filed a complaint with the state Department of Information Technology after it lost the contract, which it had held for several years. 

Truitt’s decision to side with the state board on the testing decision signals that the board and superintendent are likely to enjoy a more collegial relationship. 

“One-hundred percent, yes,” Truitt responded when asked last month if she and the board will have a more collaborative relationship than the one Johnson and the board experienced the past four years.

Whether Truitt and the board will enjoy a similar degree of harmony in their relationships with parents and teachers would appear to remain an open question.