By Randy Page
Published in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat
On Monday, August 18, 2008
South Carolina’s public education establishment is proud of the socially progressive role it has played in the Palmetto State’s history.
From the integration of school classrooms to a state funding system that aims to provide under-privileged districts with additional money, public educators have long been at the forefront of the push for social and economic equality.
Sadly, new numbers from the ACT test reinforce a disturbing trend: the gaps between black and white, and between rich and poor, are now growing in the public school system, rather than shrinking.
The first sign of trouble came in the form of a quietly released report from the S.C. Education Oversight Committee in early 2008. The report examined the achievement gap between students of different ethnic and income groups. Looking at Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test scores for both math and English/language arts, the researchers determined that statewide gaps were growing, and that progress in reducing the disparities was being made in a mere 16 percent of public schools.
These conclusions were reinforced this summer by two multistate studies. The Center on Education Policy released a report in late June investigating whether the use of No Child Left Behind and other accountability tools correlated with student improvement. The authors concluded that in most states, math and reading scores are up since 2002, but they are uncertain if the new law deserves all the credit. They found that nationwide gaps between black and white students had diminished, but that in South Carolina performance gaps between white students and African-American students actually widened, most notably in fourth- and eighth-grade math.
Similarly, performance gaps between low-income and other students grew in both math and reading.
The Southern Regional Education Board also found that South Carolina is failing to improve. Their annual Challenge to Lead Goals Report of public school indicators in 16 states identified a growth in the already staggering performance gap between racial/ethnic groups in South Carolina. This despite a total reduction of the gap in the region.
Among their conclusions: In South Carolina “the average composite SAT score increased more for white students than for black students from 1997 to 2007.” Economically correlated gaps are growing too. SREB found that S.C. fourth-graders from low-income families widened gaps with peers in reading.
Now, the South Carolina Department of Education has released the scores from 2008 ACT tests.
While the press release issued by Jim Rex focuses on growth in the S.C. state average (up a mere three-tenths of a point from 2007), the announcement skims over the fact that gains made by African-American students were only a third as large − just one tenth of point. While this means African-American students did increase their scores 1/10th of a point, the gains made by their white peers were three times larger, leaving the African-American students further behind. This is particularly disheartening considering that the statewide average score of 19.9 is already 1.2 points below the national average, despite a drop in total number South Carolina test-takers.
Because the ACT is an optional test, taken by self-selecting college applicants, a decrease in the number of students tested should result in a higher average score.
This is disappointing news. The minor statewide “gains” are far outweighed by a drop in total test-takers and the growing rift between the scores of socioeconomic groups. Students in South Carolina deserve equal access to quality instruction, the type of classroom that will prepare them for college and beyond. Only when all parents are free to chose the best classrooms for their children can we expect to see major gains in assessment and in our dismal graduation rate.
Randy Page is president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government.