SOUTH CAROLINA’S Education Accountability Act was based on the idea that students will learn more if we set high expectations and hold schools and teachers accountable for the results. It required schools to make progress educating not just the middle-class kids who are easy to teach but the disadvantaged ones as well. By grading schools on not just overall test scores but also scores for all demographic subgroups, it made it impossible for schools with lots of better-off students to mask their failure to teach poor kids.
It was a smart law that was off to a good start, when the Congress passed its own law based on the same idea but compromised by poor design. The No Child Left Behind law set dangerously unrealistic long-term requirements, demanding that every student in the country be “proficient” in reading and math — which was possible only if the word “proficient” was stripped of any meaning. And it gave states so much flexibility in the short-term that they were tempted to game the system by doing precisely that — as many did.
So we couldn’t be more delighted that the Congress and the president finally have dismantled No Child Left Behind.
‘No Child Left Behind’ changes would shift power back to SC on education
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But while we’re not convinced that the federal government needs to be looking over states’ shoulders, the fact is that removing that oversight provides a tremendous temptation for states to lower the bar. We must not let that happen in South Carolina.
Frankly, this isn’t something we would have worried about at the time No Child became law, when the consensus among Republicans and Democrats was that we had to improve our public schools, because those are the schools that will always be responsible for educating the vast majority of children in this state. But then Gov. Mark Sanford ushered in the out-of-state, defund-the-public-schools interests, and they took advantage of the fact that we set our standards higher than nearly all the other states — resulting in much lower state rankings than we would have had in an apples-to-apples comparison — to run down the schools, and run them down, and run them down some more, all the while increasing legislative and public support for their fantasy fix of enticing children to private schools.
South Carolina graduation rates climb
Rather than pointing to areas we needed to improve, low test scores suddenly became ammunition to abandon the public schools. And over time, those legislators who wanted to improve the schools we actually own and are responsible for gave in and made our tests easier. Oh, they won’t admit it, and they certainly didn’t go as far as they could have, but they did.
Now they have a free hand to go much further, and already we’ve heard calls from officials as responsible as Education Superintendent Molly Spearman to add squishy extras into the school grades.
Should we be considering something beyond standardized test scores in grading schools? Probably. Certainly creating good citizens, a component Ms. Spearman has mentioned, is important. For that matter, encouraging good health is important. But the focus must remain on the core function of the schools: providing all children in this state the opportunity to receive a decent education, of the sort that will allow them to become self-supporting, productive, taxpaying citizens.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what the state Supreme Court has ordered legislators to do.
Scoppe: One year after Abbeville school ruling, some progress, and some clarification
The court has promised to hold our elected leaders accountable for providing the laws and the resources to ensure that every child in this state has access to that decent education, and legislative leaders seem to be working in good faith to determine what those laws and resources should be.
The way our legislators tell whether the schools are doing their job is by grading them — using tough but fair standards that show us, quite simply, how much students are learning.