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A brief political history of the PACT

ONE WHO TRIED to decipher what happened in the S.C. Senate last week with regard to the PACT — that’s “Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test” to the uninitiated — can be forgiven for being confused.

I certainly am.

Start with a press release from Sen. Greg Ryberg, which said in part, “PACT is dead.... the bill we passed today kills it as of July 1, 2008.” He said “the creation and administration of our statewide assessment test belongs with the people at the State Department of Education, the State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) whose sole focus is education and not the General Assembly. I am glad that we have left it in their hands.”

This was confusing to me because I was here when the PACT was created to measure whether schools were successfully meeting educational standards set in the Education Accountability Act, which the Legislature passed at the behest of business leaders who wanted a better-trained work force and conservative Republicans who were determined that if money was going to be spent on public schools, the schools were by golly going to meet objective standards. The EAA created the EOC and charged it with making sure the DOE (had enough initials yet?) did what the Legislature insisted be done.

So yeah, if the PACT is to be changed, it’s the bureaucrats’ job to do it. But it’s the Legislature’s job to tell them to do it.

More confusingly, this is exactly what state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex wanted the Legislature to do. “Teachers and parents are clamoring for these changes, our students need them and our state deserves them,” Mr. Rex said in his own release. “It’s really gratifying to see the Senate make such a strong statement with its unanimous vote.”

In case the elected officials don’t have you confused enough, the chief organization devoted to diverting public education funds to private schools declared Friday that “The PACT is an expensive and outdated test that lacks the child-specific diagnostic data required by teachers. Unlike tests used in other states, PACT is South Carolina specific, and doesn’t provide educators with a comparison of our schools to regional and national test scores.” SCRG went on to charge that “Superintendent Rex was unwilling to replace PACT on his own,” and celebrated the idea that “final passage of this Senate bill will force him into action.”

Action that he’s been begging for authorization to take.

It might be instructive at this point to note that the Senate is run by Republicans, as is the House, which earlier passed legislation authorizing a revamp of the PACT, while Mr. Rex is the state’s highest-ranking elected Democrat. These fact are not at all important to me; I see them as an asinine distraction. But to the players, party considerations are of the utmost importance.

Republicans are terribly worried at the moment that Mr. Rex will challenge their divine right to the governor’s office by seeking that position in 2010. In fact, some see his insistence that a PACT replacement be in use by a year from now, rather than a year later, as a ploy on his part to give a boost to his campaign. In other words, these Republicans suspect him of being too anxious to replace the PACT, other Republicans see him as too reluctant (or say they do), while Mr. Rex sees his level of enthusiasm for replacing the PACT as being, like the Mama Bear’s porridge, just right.

How did we get here?

I already mentioned above how the EAA, and its child the PACT, came into being in the late 1990s. Far from being some sort of oversight, the point was to have a South Carolina-specific test, to measure whether the specific standards our state adopted — some of the highest standards in the country, by the way — were being met by the schools. The point was to make sure the schools didn’t let any students fall through the cracks.

This Republican-driven reform was never welcome among what critics are pleased to call the “education establishment,” or among Democrats, the party most closely identified with said establishment. But Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, elected in 1998, had to accept the whole shebang as a fait accompli.

Teachers complained about the PACT from the start. One of their main complaints was that the test (actually, a battery of tests, but let’s keep it simple) was not useful to them in helping individual students. Of course, it had never been intended for that purpose, but it was a complaint with great appeal across the political spectrum. Even SCRG, which is certainly no friend of public school teachers, took it up.

Add to that the fact that schools felt so much pressure over the PACT that they inflicted pressure on the teachers who then transferred the stress to the students, and before you knew it, it appeared that all teaching ceased in the last weeks of each school year while everyone involved participated in a mass panic attack over the test.

It is a great shame that teachers have been so conscious of this pressure, and a greater one that students have. This was, after all, about helping the students by making sure the schools, as institutions, did not fail them.

So it’s good that a bipartisan consensus emerged this year to change the PACT into an instrument that would hold schools accountable, while providing in addition an instrument that teachers can use for timely diagnosis and remediation.

But it’s bad that partisan craziness has made it so hard for voters and taxpayers — the folks to whom the system was to be held accountable — to tell whether that is happening.

For more thoughts from outside the two major political parties, visit thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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