Opinion Extra

Mellen: Scoppe misleading on drop-out numbers

Editor's note: Click here for Scoppe's response to Mellen's column

Cindi Ross Scoppe, associate editor of The State, recently made the bold claim that her job is "to make sure that I know and convey the truth" as it relates to the performance of South Carolina's public schools ("The insidious little lie about dropouts, part 2," Oct. 10).

It's an ambitious and important goal. Parents across South Carolina have been repeatedly let down by the Education Oversight Committee, the expensive agency created by the Legislature to serve as a public watchdog of standards and accountability. Public school report cards are chronically late and tend to bury school shortcomings in a haystack of technical terms and carefully couched "improvement" measures.

Frustratingly, Scoppe too has fallen short.

She recently wrote about public school graduation rates. Correctly, she observed there are many ways to report the figures. Officials at the state Department of Education claim that 75 percent of high schools students in South Carolina graduate. Education Week has reported 66 percent. The U.S. Department of Education is less optimistic. In its most recent detail reporting, it counted 33,439 diplomas issued by South Carolina to a class of students that began with 64,027 freshmen four years earlier. That's just 52 percent.

Any of these measures would constitute a total failure of a public school system, which was projected to spend more than $11,000 in public money for each and every student this year.

The real story of course is how much lower the graduation rate is among the most disadvantaged students in South Carolina. Federal Education Department figures produce on-time graduation rates that varied from 87 percent in York District 4 to 29 percent in Lee County School District.

These problems are not confined to high school. A new report by the Center on Education Policy confirms that. Based on PACT scores, it reports that only 29 percent of public school seventh graders, and 28 percent of eight graders are "proficient" in reading. Some public figures in South Carolina have actually hailed this as an "improvement" because the numbers were only 28 percent and 23 percent seven years earlier.

Even more insulting, the painful gaps between white and black, and between rich and poor, in South Carolina's public schools remain. In 2002, 38 percent of white eighth-graders and a mere 11 percent of black eighth-graders were reading proficient. That's a gap of 27 points. Six years later, black students' scores had risen a paltry two points, and the gain was partly offset by a one-point increase among their white peers. In the same period, the wealth-correlated gap in eighth-grade reading scores rose from 27 to 28 points. Only 14 percent of low-income eighth-grade students are reading at the proficient level in South Carolina.

Now, adding insult to injury, state lawmakers and the Education Oversight Committee have caved to the special interests of the School Boards and School Administrators associations to weaken the new PASS test (PACT's replacement). Assessment experts at the nonpartisan Northwest Evaluation Association have decried the new PASS test standards as "among the bottom quartile in a recent cross-state comparison of proficient standards within 27 states." It noted that just switching from PACT to PASS would bring about a "dramatic" increase in the number of students meeting federal standards "even with no actual improvement on student performance."

Still, the well-entrenched public school bureaucracy remains stubbornly committed to fighting reform, cherry-picking under-contextualized data to persuade parents and taxpayers to perpetually stay the course on the hope that public schools will improve. The disproven basis of this argument is that ever more money is the key to public school improvement. Instead, these folks ought to be fighting for higher levels of parental engagement, more equal access to school choices and real autonomy for local public school teachers and principals to innovate.

Since 1960, per-student government spending at public schools in the United States has quadrupled, even when adjusted for inflation. While increased spending has correlated with lower class sizes, hiring of additional personnel and growth in specialized program offerings, there has been no corresponding improvement in student performance between the early 1990s and 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Report Card as published in the Long Term Trends report.

I do not question Ms. Scoppe's sincerity when she claims to seek what is best for students in South Carolina. I do take issue with her ability to understand the difference between the ambitious promises of the S.C. public school establishment and the actual outcomes of its $7 billion-a-year efforts.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC