COLUMBIA, SC — ONLINE
South Carolina public school students in grades 3-8 have demonstrated academic progress in key subject areas across the board, although math proficiency remains stubbornly elusive.
In unveiling three sets of standardized student achievement data Thursday, the S.C. Education Department also reported an increase in the number of students passing the high school exit exam.
As they did last year, schools and districts received letter grades for attaining federal academic progress goals. But the variance in performance — with some schools and districts statewide going from an “A” to an “F,” in one year — brought howls from education experts and calls for the state education department to recalibrate its calculations.
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said he remained committed to the accountability system developed by the state to meet federal guidelines and denied that the letter grades provided a confusing picture for parents hoping to gauge the success of their schools and districts.
“This new federal report card system is more transparent to parents and the public than the old system,” Zais said. “It’s easy to understand and it fits on a single piece of paper.”
But others were not convinced.
“When you add the fact that student test scores have increased statewide, yet grades fell for half of the state’s school districts and more than one fourth of schools, is clear evidence of the weakness of their methodology,” said Paul Krohne, executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association.
In the Midlands, Lexington-Richland 5 School District scored an “A,” the highest grade in meeting overall student achievement goals of any Midlands district. In the worst showing for Midlands schools, Lexington 4 tumbled from a “C” to an “F” under the target federal guidelines.
Among the region’s largest school districts, Richland 1 scored a “C” rating, down by one grade from 2012, Lexington 1 went from an “A” to a “B” while Richland 2 retained its same “B” rating. The letter grades replace the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) designations of “Met” or “Not Met.” As is customary under federal education law, the goals and expectations for student learning were higher in 2013 than in 2012, the department said.
“It’s a complex system and in many instances a slight decrease can shift a school or district by a letter grade or more,” said Karen York, spokesman for Richland 1. “It’s confusing to many people.”
At Zais’ request, South Carolina schools last year were granted flexibility under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind), which eliminated AYP and replaced it with letter grades. This is the second year for letter grades.
Anticipating some pushback from districts, education department spokesman Jay W. Ragley said the department had re-rerun the calculations and verified the data over the past three days.
That did not satisfy the Education Oversight Committee, the non-partisan panel created by the Legislature in 1998 to oversee progress in South Carolina schools. The EOC determined that 39 districts received a lower letter grade than last year, a phenomenon the committee said can be attributed to an incompatible federal and state system for measuring academic gains.
“The differences in the state accountability system and ESEA waiver underscore the need for a clear, cohesive accountability system in South Carolina,” said EOC chairman Neil Robinson. “We need a system that is designed to move students into success in college and careers while keeping schools and districts focused on providing a learning environment that is designed so that all students have the opportunity to succeed.”
The losers in the debate are families that are attempting to choose schools based on an array of data that doesn’t seem to fit, said Dana Yow, the EOC’s director of communications and community Involvement. She noted that some of the state’s schools that received an “A” last year, received a “F” this year, a situation that was also reversed for some schools. Small school districts were particularly susceptible to change.
“Both systems become irrelevant because it is so confusing to understand,” Yow said. She expects some schools that received middling grades may get a different outcome on the annual state report cards that are issued by the S.C. education department in November.
“The federal system is very sensitive to growth and if the growth is not there it really hits systems hard,” Yow said. She pointed to Calhoun County, with 1,700 students. After an “A” rating last year and an Excellent Absolute rating in the 2012 school report card, it ranked “C” this year.
Besides the letter grades, the department unveiled the annual Palmetto Achievement of State Standards test, known as PASS, administered in grades 3-8, and results of the HSAP, the High School Assessment Program that determines who will graduate from high school.
Students overall did better on PASS in 2013 than in 2012, an achievement that Zais hailed with one caveat: About 17 percent of third-graders are promoted despite the fact that they cannot read on grade level. He had introduced legislation that would have prevented social promotion of third-graders who could not read, but it failed in the Legislature.
“Credit for these results belongs to the hard work of students, parents, and teachers across South Carolina,” said Zais. “The improvement in many grades and subject areas over the past three years is encouraging, but there is more work to be done to ensure every child is provided a personalized and customized education.”
Students are tested in English-Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and Writing. Lexington-Richland 5 also chalked up the most impressive scores on the PASS tests and tied with Lexington 1 for a 90.6 percent HSAP rate.
Statewide, HSAP passage improved from 80.1 to 82 percent, an achievement that should buoy lawmakers concerned about the state’s malingering dropout rate.
All students must pass the HSAP in reading and mathematics to receive a SC high school diploma, although lawmakers attempted to end that state requirement during the past legislative session.
Zais worried that students are taking too many similar tests, pointing to the fact that ninth-grade students are taking end-of-course assessments in algebra and English, then take the HSAP in 10th grade that measures proficiency in the same subject areas.
“Assessments are important in measuring student achievement and school performance, but the current system is duplicative,” said Zais. “Our state’s accountability system must be modernized to provide a single state and federal report that provides clear, meaningful data to the public and helps teachers improve instruction in the classroom.”
Find results for your school:
2013 PASS Results: click here http://ed.sc.gov/data/pass/2013/
2013 HSAP Results: click here http://ed.sc.gov/data/hsap/hsap.cfm?year=2013
2013 Letter Grades: click here http://ed.sc.gov/data/esea/2013/