THE IDEA BEHIND the school grading system that our state developed in 1998 was to identify those schools that weren’t educating children well enough and target our resources and attention toward fixing them.
Unfortunately, the system was quickly seized upon by critics trying to convince people that our schools were hopeless and that we should just give up on them and throw our tax dollars at private schools. And then along came the federal government and layered its own flawed school grading system on top of ours, with unrealistic goals that by definition soon would label all schools as failures.
Clearly, most of our schools need to do better — even the ones that score well on one or the other grading system. And the Legislature needs to hold up its end of the bargain, giving schools the tools to do a better job — from adequately funding them to giving them the flexibility to, say, select which reading programs to use and how many minutes to spend on each subject, rather than having that dictated from Columbia — and giving state officials the tools to intervene when the schools don’t improve enough. And state officials need to use those tools effectively.
But at bottom, what’s important isn’t how well our schools score — that’s merely a tool to get to the real goal. What really matters is how well our students are educated. What matters is breaking the cycle of whole communities of students dropping out of school and ending up on welfare or in prison. What matters is educating those students and turning them into productive citizens, because our state will never meet its potential as long as we maintain a permanent underclass.
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And while we have a long way to go, the latest news is good.
The state Education Department reported last month that the number of students dropping out of high school declined for the fourth consecutive year, to 2.5 percent, from 2.8 percent the previous year and 3.9 percent in 2007-08. Overall, the number of dropouts has dropped by nearly 35 percent since 2007-08 — from 8,032 to 5,232.
This month, the department announced that the percent of students passing the state’s Palmetto Assessment of State Standards increased in every grade last year, and the portion of students passing the high school exit exam on the first try increased for the fourth consecutive year, to 82 percent.
This is critical to keep in mind as we consider how nearly half the schools received lower grades on this year’s Education Department report cards than last year’s, with 21 going from an “A” to an “F.” For the most part, the drop is not because they are doing a worse job. It’s because we’ve raised the bar, and they’re not meeting our higher expectations. So a school where this year’s students scored the very same as last year’s could get a lower grade this year, because we expected it to do better.
Raising the bar is the only way we’ll ever get to that place where we’re not throwing away whole communities of children. The legitimate question is how quickly we should raise the bar, and how we should measure progress, and Education Superintendent Mick Zais and much of the rest of the state’s education establishment have starkly different answers — answers that are embodied in the federal and state school grading systems that are expected to produce very different results this year.
Those differences need to be hashed out, with all parties looking not to defend their own approach but to develop the one most likely to get us where we need to go: where all students in all of our schools have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, and we’re doing all we reasonably can to make sure they seize that opportunity. Our state’s future depends on getting this right.