Education

A testing time in SC for both kids and schools

The tests are here.

In a school year filled with uncertainty that left teachers and students scrambling to get ready for another set of new state tests, students across South Carolina this week are showing what they’ve learned.

The ACT tests arrived as the state nixed Common Core, adopted new state standards for English and math, and signed and then repealed a five-year contract with ACT Inc. to administer its state tests.

The tests are not without controversy — an opt-out movement that’s gripped some states has taken shape here with some parents concerned about both the number of state tests and the content of the new tests.

And the rapid roll-out of the new tests has caused consternation for teachers whose students face timed tests – including written essays – and for school districts who believe test scores will drop due to lack of time to prepare and wider roll-out of the ACT College Readiness Test than in past years.

Thursday is the final day for tests given to students in grades three through eight and grade 11. Testing started earlier this week.

Here’s what you need to know about South Carolina’s new tests.

What are the new state tests?

There are three new state tests. And 11th-graders are taking two of them.

The new tests are all given by ACT Inc., one of the nation’s largest standardized testing companies. Juniors will take the ACT College Readiness Test and ACT Workkeys while students in grades three through eight will take the ACT Aspire.

​Who will take the ACT College Readiness Test?

All 11th grade students will be given this four-hour test, which in the past has been given as an option (usually on a Saturday during the spring) for high-school juniors who are preparing to go to college. The ACT tests replace the High School Assessment Program tests given in previous years.

What is the point of the ACT Workkeys?

The 3.5-hour test, also to be taken by 11-graders, measures job readiness and is used by more than 1,500 employers in South Carolina to fill positions. The test includes three sections:

▪ Applied mathematics: to test mathematical reasoning, critical thinking and problem-solving of work-related problems.

▪ Reading for information: reading letters, directions, signs, notices, policies and regulations.

▪ Locating information: using charts, graphs and tables.

Since the state will document how its students perform on the Workkeys test, it can show potential business recruits the capabilities of the state’s workforce, according to the Education Oversight Committee.

“We are creating thousands of good-paying jobs,” said state Superintendent Molly Spearman. “WorkKeys is an indicator of whether our high school students are ready to take on these highly skilled positions.”

What is ACT Aspire?

​All students in grades three through eight will be tested for English, reading, writing and mathematics understanding with this timed test that is being given for about an hour each day over three days this week, Tuesday to Thursday. It includes a 30-minute essay.

It is aligned to South Carolina’s new state standards and will be paper-based this year.

How are the tests used?

​Teachers use scores to show where students are succeeding and where extra help or instruction is needed.

In the past, test scores have been part of school and district report cards issued by the state. This year, the Education Oversight Committee won’t use the test results in school report cards, but that’s likely to change in future years, said Jason McCreary, Greenville County Schools director of accountability and quality assurance.

Teachers and principals in Greenville are evaluated based on test results, McCreary said. Test scores count as one-eighth of teacher evaluations and one-seventh of principal evaluations, he said.

What happens next year?

​South Carolina’s Department of Education inked a five-year, $58 million contract with ACT Inc. to provide state tests. After protest from the only other company to bid for the state tests, the state’s procurement officer ruled the department has to re-bid its contract for future years.

Schools won’t know until the fall which test will be given next year, which has affected school calendars.

Can students opt-out of the tests?

​Short answer: yes and no.

The state Department of Education sent a memo in September that said there is no provision that allows students to opt-out of state tests.

But some parents have used a different term, telling school officials that they “refuse” to let their children take the tests, said Sheri Few, director of South Carolina Parents Involved in Education.

Spearman is a strong advocate for parents choosing what is best for their children, said Dino Teppara, education department spokesman.

She has spoken with state legislative leaders and “urged them to adopt legislation allowing parents to choose whether or not their child participates in standardized tests,” Teppara said.

This comes amid a nationwide movement to examine the number of tests, the high stakes involved and the usefulness of tests being given to students.

Will South Carolina cut back on high-stakes tests?

​Spearman said she is evaluating testing requirements.

“I agree that we need accountability and tests,” she said. “However, I also believe that it’s time to evaluate what kinds of tests we’re giving to students — and more importantly — how many, so we can develop a fair system that balances the need for testing with a passion for learning.”

Are these the only state tests?

​No. This spring, the state will continue to give SCPASS tests to grades four through eight for science and social studies. Those testing days are May 7-8.

Students also will take end-of-course exams (which count for 20 percent of their course grade) in Algebra 1/Mathematics for the Technologies 2, Biology 1/Applied Biology 2. English 1 and U.S. History and the Constitution.

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