South Carolina has been a leader in education accountability for more than a decade.
Well before Congress imposed the burdensome requirements of No Child Left Behind, our state, unlike most, had set its own very challenging goals, combining high standards, demanding assessments, ambitious achievement targets and accountability for results in a comprehensive system often praised as an example for the nation.
But continuous progress doesn’t happen without continuous effort. The recent approval of a scoring system for the new state assessment completes the Legislature’s first overhaul of the Education Accountability Act since it was approved 11 years ago. The lessons we learned in that time gave us a stronger, fairer system that is true to our original goals but more meaningful for parents and far more useful to teachers and school leaders.
The standards we set for student knowledge and skills, widely recognized as among the most demanding in the nation, remain the same, and students will be tested against those standards in grades three through eight to evaluate how well they are learning.
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They still will have to demonstrate the same high achievement to pass the new assessments. A score of “basic” on PACT will translate to a score of “met” on PASS — both indicating gradelevel achievement against rigorous expectations. Performance above grade level will earn a score of “exemplary,” which sets the bar even higher than “advanced” was on PACT for some subjects and grade levels.
PASS will be a centerpiece of school accountability, just as PACT was, but it is different in a way that addresses longstanding concerns among educators, parents and the public: It focuses not just on reporting learning, but on improving it. Under the new assessment, the results of yearend accountability tests will be available weeks earlier than under PACT, giving teachers and schools more time to plan changes that can improve instruction. Parents of students in underperforming schools will benefit from earlier reports to evaluate federally mandated public school choice options well before a new school year begins.
More important, the new system supports formative assessments, which give teachers crucial information about individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, so they can adjust instruction as needed. The result will be a testing system that evaluates learning but also guides it, offering practical help for teachers, better information for parents and tailored support for students.
In collapsing PACT’s four performance levels (below basic, basic, proficient and advanced) into three for the new PASS (not met, met and exemplary), the General Assembly specified that the middle level will be used to evaluate annual goals for the purpose of federal accountability, a change that likely will mean more of our schools meet adequate yearly progress goals under No Child Left Behind.
That is exactly as it should be. To meet AYP in 2011, using “met” as the standard, about 80 percent of a school’s students in every grade — including specialeducation students and English language learners — will have to perform on grade level in every subject, against the toughest standards in the nation. It won’t be easy to accomplish that. Schools that do may not be perfect, but they are advancing the goals of No Child Left Behind, and they are far from failing.
South Carolina’s schools have suffered for years under a flawed federal system that rewards states for setting a low bar and achieving it while punishing the few, such as ours, that set a higher standard. Wild disparities among the states have made AYP virtually meaningless and created a national consensus that No Child Left Behind must be changed. In fact, under our former system, a proficient score on PACT required S.C. students to score higher than 70 percent of the children in America.
But federal accountability is a secondary purpose in a state with its own high standards and its own requirements for aggressive, measurable and monitored progress. Changing the performance level we count for federal purposes should give a fairer picture of how we compare to other states.
It certainly will frustrate critics who have pushed their private school voucher agenda by labeling our schools as failures, even though they know better. Those critics have proved however that they are not interested in a fair, accurate evaluation of public schools — only in finding fault no matter how much we progress.
But it won’t change what matters most: the rigorous expectations we established for ourselves, and our commitment to system of state accountability that is better now than ever.
Dr. Krohne is executive director of the S.C. School Boards Association.