Politics & Government

Why half of S.C.’s school districts are breaking state testing law

Call me a skeptic about standardized testing. Or for that matter, any testing in school.
Call me a skeptic about standardized testing. Or for that matter, any testing in school.

Last year, S.C. lawmakers passed a law requiring school districts have their students take statewide tests online, using computers.

But 47 of the state’s more than 80 school districts – including five Midlands districts – requested waivers from that law last spring, opting for paper-and-pencil tests instead.

Forty of the districts said they did not have enough computers to give tests online. Thirty-six said they did not have adequate internet access.

Overcoming those barriers will take more than money to buy computers and wireless routers, according to reviews of S.C. school districts’ reports on their readiness for online testing.

In those reviews, some districts said their buildings are so old that renovating them to upgrade their technology would be too costly or impossible. Others cited leaky roofs and a lack of air conditioning in closets, where data servers are located, as barriers to internet access. Others said building materials, including concrete walls that block wireless signals, make it difficult to expand internet access.

Of the 50 districts that voluntarily participated in the reviews, reports for 31 of the districts said they could not meet online testing requirements for 2017 without significant improvements.

Testing barriers in some districts were far more dire than in others, according to the reports. According to Barnwell 19’s technology review, for example, “classroom clocks are old and do not work.”

However, following that review, the district made technology upgrades in preparation for online testing last spring and did not request a waiver. As a result, the district was able to comply with the state testing law, said Superintendent Shawn Johnson.

Millions in tech money cut

S.C. education advocates warned of the steep climb that many districts faced to prepare for online testing and the demands of digital learning.

Heeding that warning, then-Gov. Nikki Haley pushed – and lawmakers approved – sending about $29 million a year in 2015, 2016 and 2017 to school districts so they could buy tablets and computers, and improve internet connectivity.

But lawmakers cut that spending to $12 million in the budget year that started July 1.

Asked about that cut, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said, “Improving our state’s technology infrastructure is and must continue to be a top priority.”

S.C. students are required to have knowledge of computers by another state law that says all students should graduate from high school ready for college or a 21st-century career, she added.

Also, in May, the state Board of Education voted to require school districts teach digital literacy in the third through eighth grades, starting in the 2018-19 school year.

The Education Department is offering to help districts move to full online testing. Districts have until Aug. 11 to request the assistance, according to a memo that went out to districts Friday.

Even with the help, state education officials anticipate districts again will ask for waivers from the law. “We are going to continue to see waivers, but our goal is to get as many of these districts up to snuff over the next year or so,” said Ryan Brown, Education Department spokesman.

Too young to test?

Some school administrators say online testing is not always a fair way of measuring a student’s knowledge.

Students have varying access to computers, tablets and internet access at school and in the home, they say. That means online testing could test their digital knowledge but not their knowledge of the subject they are being tested on.

Florence 1, for example, cited concerns about its students’ keyboarding and typing skills, especially in elementary grades, and computer availability across the district to seek a waiver from online testing. “We believe that results obtained from online testing this year may be a measure of student technology proficiency and skills, and not academic abilities,” the district said.

Other school districts say some students simply are too young to take tests on computers.

Columbia’s Richland 1, for example, requested a waiver from computer testing for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders on the statewide writing exam.

Online writing tests are “developmentally inappropriate” for young students, the district said in its waiver request, echoing the concerns of other districts.

In a letter to the state, Richland 1 Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said there is much debate over “whether the youngest learners are ready to sit with two feet on the floor, elbows bent, hands hovering over keys and eyes on the screen.”

“The keyboard,” he added, “is really not designed for accurate use ... by young hands.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Barnwell 19 did not request a waiver from online testing.

Not ready for online testing?

More than half of South Carolina’s 80-plus school districts requested waivers last spring from a state law requiring online testing.

56: Requests for waivers from the 2016-17 online testing requirement, including 47 of the state’s 82 traditional school districts; the rest came from charter schools and the state’s two Governor’s Schools

40: Requests citing insufficient computing devices

36: Requests citing inadequate internet access

15: Requests saying students were not prepared to be tested online

10: Requests citing issues with security for the ACT standardized tests and device compatibility

5: Midlands school districts requesting online testing waivers – Lexington 1, Lexington 4, Lexington-Richland 5, Richland 1 and Richland 2

SOURCE: S.C. Department of Education