No-Child Law Bad for S.C.
Several years before Congress and President Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act aimed at boosting public schools' accountability, South Carolina launched its own a school-accountability initiative. Centered on some of the toughest performance tests in the country, the S.C. report-card system gives residents an accurate yearly snapshot of how S.C. youngsters in grades three through eight are progressing in reading, writing and math. More recently, the state incorporated social studies and science into these diagnostics, called the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests.
The federal act may have been good news for children in states where politicians have lagged in imposing accountability on public schools. But now the second round of federal school-improvement results, called adequate yearly progress, has been made public, it's clear that the federal system poses a threat to the integrity of South Carolina's report-card system. That's because the federal law uses the existing state school-accountability systems to measure adequate yearly progress.
The S.C. system rightly was designed to pressure local school boards to improve their schools rapidly. So on adequate yearly progress, S.C. youngsters have a higher hill to climb than youngsters in states that set less-demanding performance goals.
Thus did S.C. children score poorly on the first round of individual-school adequate yearly progress scores last year, with only 20 percent meeting the federal goals. Even here in Horry County, where students have consistently scored well above state averages on the PACTs and done well on report cards, most schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress targets in 2003.
This year, the adequate yearly progress picture in South Carolina is much brighter, with 56 percent of schools statewide meeting the goals. In Horry County, the number of schools meeting adequate yearly progress goals this year jumped to 27, up 21 schools from last year.
But some observers discount this improvement because the state Department of Education earlier this year persuaded its federal counterpart to allow changes in the state's rating system for computing adequate yearly progress results.
The S.C. Department of Education insists that this change did not constitute watering down the results. We believe that, but a move such as this does lend itself to dual interpretations.
This is bad enough. But how long will it be before educators and politicians desperate to improve South Carolina's chances in the adequate yearly progress sweepstakes manipulate PACT proficiency numbers to make more students look like they're learning essential subjects when they're really not? The temptation to do this will be great, as the No Child Left Behind "carrot" is federal money S.C. schools desperately need.
The hope must be that Congress and the next president will fix the law to put South Carolina and other high-goal states on level footing with less ambitious states. But if that doesn't happen, S.C. politicians should resist the temptation to cook the PACT numbers to make S.C. kids look better than they are. That would be a grave disservice to youngsters who are going to need critical academic skills to survive in the globalized economy as adults.
Myrtle Beach Sun News
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