Plagiarism, copyright infringement and “low rigor”: State Auditor gives lawmakers an earful about failings of NC Virtual Public School

By: - September 3, 2020 12:20 pm

A complaint lodged by John Scanlon and his family was the catalyst for a damning state audit that found courses offered by NCVirtual Public School lacked quality and rigor, and that educators hired to create content for an honor’s history course engaged in plagiarism and copyright infringement. The state Department of Public Instruction is the administrator for the school.

State Auditor Beth Wood cited the family’s role in the investigation while presenting the findings to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee on Tuesday.  

But the Scanlon family did not celebrate its hard-fought victory.

“We were never looking for vindication, and do not gain any satisfaction from today’s hearing,” John Scanlon told Policy Watch on Tuesday. “We spent hundreds of hours forcing DPI [NC Department of Public Instruction] to produce documents, reviewing them, and piecing together the picture of mismanagement at NCVPS.”

Scanlon said he is grateful for Wood’s tenacity in pursuing the truth. But he is “disheartened” by the response from the State Board of Education and DPI, who, he said, appear interested only in protecting their image.

State Auditor Beth Wood

“Clearly, they are more focused on not looking bad than in providing a quality education to North Carolina’s students,” Scanlon said. “Will the [Joint Legislative Education Oversight] Committee hold them accountable for fixing the problems at NCVPS? Only time will tell. So far, we have found few people in our state government who care enough to see this work done.”

NCVPS is the nation’s second-largest online virtual public school. It opened in 2007 to largely provide advanced and honors courses to students in districts that could not offer them. More than 32,000 high school students and select-middle school students are enrolled in nearly 52,000 online courses. In 2017 and 2018, NCVPS received $19 million and $18 million, respectively, from local public school districts and charter schools.

The Scanlon family complained about the quality of the course in October 2015, after their daughter found evidence of plagiarism as she searched for online resources because she had found it difficult to follow the subject matter.

“The test wasn’t aligning with the information in the course,” State Audtior Wood said. “Again, she went online to try to get help and found that many of the things she was looking at that had been developed in the course [were] in somebody else’s course, so it had been plagiarized.”

When the Scanlons contacted state DPI officials about what they’d found, they were told the daughter was an “honors class wannabe” not capable of performing the more advanced course work, Wood said.

“This young lady went on to get a full ride at Wake Forest University,” she said.

After DPI found issues with the history course, Wood decided to examine other courses offered by the virtual school. She hired a team of education consultants to ensure the courses aligned with curriculum content standards for instruction, assessment or both, as required by state law and NCVPS policy. Of the virtual school’s 133 courses, consultants looked at 81 classified as “general” and “honors” and 17 that were “Advanced Placement.” They selected 12 of the 98 to sample. Eight of 12 courses failed to meet the state requirements; 11 of 12 did not meet NCVPS standards for cognitive rigor. AP Art History, AP Environmental Science and physical science courses all rated low for instruction and assessment.

The audit also found that teacher performance evaluations were not performed consistently and in accordance with NCVPS policy during the 2017-18 school year. NCVPS has a total of 27 permanent staff and relies mostly on contracted teachers to develop and deliver its courses, according to the audit. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, NCVPS contracted with 806 and 745 licensed teachers and conversation coaches, respectively.

In June, State Superintendent Mark Johnson agreed with findings regarding NCVPS teacher evaluations. He also agreed that the school failed to properly cite course content. But Johnson disagreed with findings critical of course rigor for 11 courses and the auditor’s finding that eight courses did not meet required content standards.

“Determination related to content alone meeting a standard is a subjective test, with varying results from one person to another, including the third-party vendor.” Johnson wrote. “The role of the teacher and related instruction were not evaluated as a part of the audit.”

Wood said Tuesday that it would be difficult to consider the role of NCVPS teachers because many of them have not been properly evaluated.

State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis

SBE Chairman Eric Davis and Deputy Superintendent Bev Emory attended Tuesday’s meeting on behalf of the State Board and DPI.  “We’ll use every item in this audit, and every other audit, to get better,” Davis said, noting that virtual learning has taken on greater importance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In delivering a presentation to the committee, Davis and Emory said corrective steps have been taken to address the audit issues. They include purchasing new authenticity software to help identify copyright issues and providing teacher training in copyright compliance.

They also said there have been improvements in internally reviewing course content to ensure it aligns with state standards. And there are plans to use curriculum maps, as defined by Quality Matters (a 60,000-member nonprofit that’s recognized for certifying quality of online courses and programs) to develop new courses, among other improvement measures.

It would cost an additional $250,000 to review and certify the 126 courses NCVPS now offers over a two- to three-year cycle.

State Sen. Tom McInnis, a Richmond County Republican, questioned why such a relatively small amount of money would prohibit DPI from certifying NCVPS courses.

Rep. Craig Horn

“When I got on the school board down in Richmond County, I remember they used to play that game, ‘if we only had more money,'” McInnis said. “Well, I’m not concerned about the money at DPI because there’s barrels of money over there.”

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, who has advocated for virtual Pre-K programs, noted that his granddaughter took several NCVPS courses in high school and graduated with honors from Western Carolina University. Horn said one family’s bad experience with NCVPS does not mean the online school is a failure.

“I don’t want to leave the people of North Carolina with the impression that NCVPS is a disaster,” Horn said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be significantly improved but the impression of hearing one person’s experience that was a disaster doesn’t necessarily mean that another person’s experience was a disaster.”

Wood disagreed. “It’s not a story versus a story,” she said. “It’s the facts in this audit supported by subject matter experts.”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.