Background and Overview


North Carolina has maintained a Standard Course of Study since the 1890's. That document was a brief, simple guide which outlined the curriculum for the public schools. Every five to seven years since that time, the Standard Course of Study has been revised to reflect the needs of North Carolina students. Following the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Reform Act in June of 1984, the area of Instructional Services within the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction began a revision of the Standard Course of Study. These efforts to define a basic education program for the State resulted in two publications:

  • The Basic Education Program for North Carolina's Public Schools (Adopted by State Board of Education in response to a legislative mandate) - outlines the curriculum, programs not confined to subject areas, general standards, material support, and staffing which should be provided in all schools throughout the state.
  • The North Carolina Standard Course of Study (Adopted as policy by the State Board of Education) - sets content standards and describes the curriculum which should be made available to every child in North Carolina's public schools. It includes the subject or skills areas of arts education, English language arts, guidance, healthful living, information/computer skills, mathematics, science, second language studies, social studies, and workforce development education. Also included are the philosophy and rationale underlying the curriculum frameworks and considerations for developing a thinking framework, aligning curriculum and assessment, and providing for the needs of exceptional children.

Standard Course of Study

The revised Standard Course of Study has moved from a detailed, prescriptive curriculum guide to a more flexible guide to instruction, emphasizing what students should know and be able to do as they progress through various levels of proficiency and ultimately exit from high school. The revised curriculum focuses on themes and concepts rather than isolated facts. It emphasizes thinking skills and problem solving more than the memorization and recall of information.

The revised Standard Course of Study is based on recent research on how students learn. It is a curriculum that promotes integration through the identification of common skills and processes.

The Standard Course of Study includes the curriculum that should be made available to every child in North Carolina's public schools. Many public schools in the state presently offer an even more comprehensive curriculum. Therefore, in some curriculum areas, electives were also included. The Standard Course of Study is part of the Department of Public Education's continual improvement efforts. The curriculum will be revised on a regular basis to remain consistent with the changing needs of our nation, state, and local communities.

Philosophy and Rationale

Education has long served as the key to equal opportunity for American citizens. We should be proud of our schools. Historically, American schools have prepared students to join an industrialized economy and become contributing citizens in their communities.

Today, however, the challenge of education is to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Students in modern society must be prepared to:

  • compete in a global economy,
  • understand and operate complex communication and information systems, and
  • apply higher level thinking skills to make decisions and solve problems. American businesses seek students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the international marketplace of today's information-based society. Whether at work or in post-secondary study, students must be able to apply what they've learned from their years of public schooling.

The purpose of the North Carolina Standard Course of Study is to guarantee that all students have equal access to the same basic curriculum. If public education is an avenue to equal opportunity, high standards must be set for all students. The Standard Course of Study does not seek to prescribe how schools should organize themselves or how teachers should instruct. Rather, the curriculum sets standards against which schools and teachers may judge their success.

Curriculum The Integration

Department of Public Instruction views integration as a curriculum implementation strategy which links the content and skills from various disciplines. There are various models of integration which seek to achieve an acceptable degree of interdisciplinary learning. Generally, these models use the language and methodology from more than one discipline and focus on unifying themes, issues, problems, concepts, and experiences. These models help the learner make connections among the individual disciplines and are based upon the following beliefs.


  • Mirrors the real world in which we live.
  • Motivates students by making learning relevant to their personal lives.
  • Adds coherence to vast amounts of information by making connections among disciplines.
  • Addresses the overcrowded curriculum by viewing content as a "means" not an "end."
  • Acknowledges reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and the use of numbers as enabling skills within thinking processes.
  • Fosters collaboration among students and teachers.

Although the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction strongly endorses the concept of integration among various disciplines, local school districts, schools, and classroom teachers are best able to develop curricular units which will be meaningful to the teachers and students at the classroom level. It is the responsibility of the State to set quality curriculum and performance standards and to develop models of integration which link curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Thinking and Reasoning Skills

To become productive, responsible citizens and to achieve a sense of personal fulfillment, students must develop their ability to think and reason. It is no longer adequate for students to simply memorize information for recall. If graduates are to function effectively now and in the 21st century, they must be able to acquire and integrate new information, make judgments, apply information, and reflect on learning.

Research during the 1960's in cognitive psychology has led to the study of the processes that underlie learning. Although there are numerous models of intelligence and learning, the following guiding assumptions serve as the foundation for a thinking framework for North Carolina's public schools.

All students can become better thinkers.

  • Thinking is content dependent and influenced by the learner's prior knowledge of that content.
  • The teaching of thinking should be deliberate and explicit with an emphasis on the transfer and application of thinking processes and skills.
  • Thinking is improved when the learner takes control of his/her thinking processes and skills.
  • Curriculum, instruction, and assessment should be aligned to enhance the teaching of thinking.
  • Improving student thinking will require fundamental changes in the school culture, including lesson design, student assessment, classroom organization, and school governance.
  • Over-emphasis on factual recall inhibits the development of thinking.
  • Schools must model thoughtful behavior-decision making, problem solving and other thinking processes.
  • Efforts to improve thinking within a school or school system should be guided by a conceptual framework and comprehensive plan.
  • There is no single best program for the teaching of thinking.

Dimensions of Thinking

The Department of Public Instruction has adopted Dimensions of Thinking* (1988) as the framework for the revised curriculum. The more recent work, Dimensions of Learning (1994), builds on the theory and research from Dimensions of Thinking and provides direction from a practitioner's perspective.

  • Thinking Skills: These are specific cognitive operations--the building blocks of thinking. Examples are observing, recalling comparing, and ordering.
  • Thinking Processes: These are complex sequences of thinking skills. Different processes involve variable sequences of thinking skills. They occur over time.
  • Creative Thinking: This is the ability to form new combinations of ideas to fulfill needs. It is generative in nature and is usually judged by outputs.
  • Critical Thinking: This is reasonable, reflective thinking--deciding what to believe. It is evaluative in nature and helps one not to be blinded by his/her own point of view.
  • Metacognition: This is the awareness of one's own self as a thinker.

* Marzano, R.J. (1988). Dimensions of Thinking, Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum.

Alignment of Curriculum and Assessment

The North Carolina Standard Course of Study sets content standards for what students should know and be able to do. The North Carolina ABCs Accountability Plan establishes performance standards which specify the level of proficiency a student must reach in order to have met specific content standards in specified subject areas. These performance standards are indicators of proficiency for those content areas that are tested.

Balanced Assessment Program

A balanced assessment program for North Carolina schools, teachers, and students serves multiple purposes. Classroom assessment informs instruction and monitors students' progress, while statewide testing focuses on accountability for student achievement and quality programs. Accountability measures are the means of checking broadly to determine what has been learned within the school. These assessments allow for corrections in instructional focus at a program level and are important indicators of the degree to which all students are learning the Standard Course of Study. These data also help teachers determine students' progress from year to year. Results from accountability measures provide one source of information for parents and the public in a timely and accurate manner.

Ongoing classroom assessments are multifaceted and document students' progress over time. They are planned and administered by the classroom teacher and are focused on improving learning, readjusting instruction, and promoting quality, in-depth student work. These assessments make use of various strategies such as observations and open-ended questions and resources such as instructional management systems (test item banks) and portfolios. They encourage the observation of processes and the collection of student products. These assessments inform instructional planning and student, teacher, and parent conferences where individual student progress and future goals are discussed.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction believes that a balanced assessment program supports implementation of the Standard Course of Study. Balanced assessment includes testing for accountability purposes and the continual development of quality classroom assessment as vehicles to prepare students to master high content and performance standards. The strategies most likely to result in long-term growth and learning of high quality will result from effective use of classroom assessments as an integral part of instruction. Additionally, strong classroom assessment engages students in self-assessment and greater ownership for their own learning. Quality classroom assessment is essential to the goals of high student achievement and the continuous improvement of schools.

Learning Targets

A strong model for teaching and learning includes classroom assessment as an integral part of a balanced assessment program. In an instruction-assessment cycle assessment methods are tied to learning targets and then to decisions about instruction. (See Figure 1) In the initial part of the cycle, learning targets (goals) are clarified and students know in advance what they are expected to learn. Teachers use their in-depth understanding of the curriculum to identify the most important learning goals and establish priorities for instruction in order to build on students' prior understandings. They consider multiple targets - factual information, concepts, processes, reasoning, applications, and attitudes. They establish high expectations for all students for all important learning targets. Most importantly, they are able to clarify for themselves and their students what those targets are and what mastery of them will look like.

Assessment Methods

Since the primary users of classroom assessment are teachers and students, the most important purpose is to direct and inform student learning. Teachers and students need multiple evidences about each student's understandings and performances to diagnose, monitor progress, evaluate achievement, and plan for future instruction. Teachers use a variety of assessment methods, both formal and informal, to gather evidence of student learning. They match the type of assessment method to the learning target they want to measure and use stategies that ask students to demonstrate their thinking and reasoning.

Through an ongoing process teachers may use classroom activities both to instruct and assess at the same time. What is important is that evidence of student learning is gathered with a variety of assessment methods, in multiple contexts, and over an extended period of time.

Decisions & Actions

As they gather the evidence about students' learning through classroom assessment, teachers make sense of assessment information. They ask themselves reflective questions. For example, they may ask:

  • What do these errors actually tell me about the students' thinking and understanding?
  • Do I have sufficient evidence to know how well the students really understand?
  • How well can I generalize about how much students know and can do?
  • What other evidence may I need?

Reflection helps teachers decide what information and feedback can be extracted from student assessment data and what inferences and interpretations can be made about student learning.

Figure 1, Assessment Cycle

Communication Documentation

In the last part of the model, teachers document, act on, and communicate information from the assessments. By taking action based upon what the students understand and can do, teachers are likely to be more effective in their decisions. They may decide to reteach key concepts, to move to the next unit of instruction, to regroup students for further instruction, or to allow more practice and application time. Documentation of student learning occurs throughout the teaching and learning model and will include diverse formats: checklists, anecdotal records, observations, grades, portfolios. Communication can provide clear, precise, useable feedback to students, parents, administrators, or other interested adults. This communication can be formal (a report card or scheduled conference) or informal (a telephone conversation, note, or conversation). The cycle of teaching and learning will repeat again and again throughout the year, with the teacher's identifying and clarifying the next learning targets.

Both classroom assessment and statewide testing focus on the learning targets that are described in the Standard Course of Study, albeit for different purposes. Future changes in the scope and form of statewide assessments will therefore be based on the Standard Course of Study.

Programs for Children With Special Needs

The Purpose of Programs for Exceptional Children

The main purpose of exceptional children's programs is to ensure that students with disabilities develop mentally, physically and emotionally to the fullest extent possible through an appropriate, individualized education in the least restrictive environment.

Children with special needs are students who because of permanent or temporary mental, physical, or emotional disabilities need special education and are unable to have all their educational needs met in a regular class without special education or related services. Children with special needs include those who are autistic, hearing impaired (deaf and hard of hearing), mentally handicapped (educable, trainable, or severely/profoundly), multi-handicapped, orthopedically impaired, other health impaired, pregnant, behaviorally-emotionally handicapped, specific learning disabled, speech-language impaired, traumatic brain injured, and visually impaired (blind or partially sighted). See Section .1501 or Procedures Governing Programs and Services for Children with Special Needs for definitions of these classifications.

Programs and services for children with special needs may be classified as both instructional programs and instructional support services, depending on the educational need of an individual student.

Content Sequence

Curricula for most children with special needs follow the curricula for students in general education. Emphasis must be given to instruction in English language arts, arts education, social studies, healthful living, mathematics, science, career and vocational education, depending on the needs of the individual student. Attention must focus upon cognitive, affective, motor and vocational development within the curricular areas. The Individualized Education Program for students with disabilities is based on a comprehensive assessment, and states in writing the special education offerings to be provided to each student with a disability.

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes - knowledge, skills, concepts, understandings, and attitudes - for students with disabilities will differ from student to student. For many exceptional students, the same learning outcomes developed for students in general education will be appropriate. Some exceptional students will meet the learning outcomes at a different time and in a different manner than students in general education. Some students with severely limiting disabilities might not meet these outcomes in general education and will need a totally different curriculum.

Curriculum Adaptation

The purpose for adapting or changing curricula and teaching and learning strategies for students with disabilities is to help them achieve at their highest level, and to prepare them to function as independently as possible. Completion of school experience by students with disabilities is determined by meeting the requirements for graduation or by attaining the goals in the Individualized Education Program, or both. To graduate with a diploma, an exceptional student must earn the State mandated units of credit based on successful completion of course work, and acceptable scores on tests adopted by the State. Exceptional students who do not meet the State and local requirements for a diploma, but meet other requirements for graduation, will be eligible to participate in graduation exercises and receive a certificate of achievement.

Although course requirements are the same for exceptional students and non-exceptional students, the instruction must be tailored to meet each student's individual needs. Instruction is based on the curricula needs (academic, affective, motor, and vocational) of each student with a disability. Instruction varies from student to student so curricula may vary also. The key to all education for students with disabilities is the Individualized Education Plan.

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