Why has standardized testing failed in South Carolina?

Nationwide, K-12 student achievement is up since 2002, the year No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was adopted. South Carolina has bucked the trend. Why?

A new OpEd in Greenville News considers the problem:

Getting rid of PACT a small first step

Elimination of the time-consuming and ineffective PACT test is great news for parents and teachers. While PACT was considered innovative when first introduced, it had become a burdensome and expensive measurement tool, unable to provide today’s educators with the detailed feedback they require.

This might have been corrected earlier, had not bureaucrats at the state Department of Education sat by idly as the ever-growing PACT spiraled out of control. Replacement of PACT is a start, but does nothing to answer the larger problem: Why has the use of standardized testing done so little for student progress in South Carolina?

Two multi-state studies were published earlier this year examining the role of standardized testing on student performance, one from the Center on Education Policy (CEP), the other from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Both reports began by looking at the impact of state assessment tools used to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Researchers wanted to know if the NCLB law has been working. While pinpointing the direct role of the law is tough, both sets of authors did find significant growth in overall student performance since 2002, as well as a reduction in the gaps between different types of students throughout the United States.

Scores at South Carolina public schools are a sad exception to the national trend. The CEP report found 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 SREB report also found growth in social and economic gaps at the high school level.

Just as troubling, the SREB report further indicates that all public school students in South Carolina trail both their regional and national peers in reading, SAT scores, SAT participation, AP scores, AP participation and average graduation rate. This despite the fact that “SC’s funding for K-12 students outpaced enrollment and inflation from 2000 to 2005.”

Replacement of the PACT will not address these problems. In fact, the political deal-making that surrounded replacement of the PACT brought with it a lowering of state standards and a weakening of the evaluation system used for school and district report cards. It also left many unanswered questions about how the new test will be developed, and what if any role the politically connected assessment company that developed PACT will have.

Frustration is widespread, and political insiders have been forced to respond with initiatives of their own. Some of the same incumbent lawmakers and education bureaucrats most at fault for the persistent failures are now working to change the state Constitution. Their hope is that a reworded constitutional mandate will be the basis for another divisive and expensive round of activist lawsuits, similar to the decade-long and fruitless Corridor of Shame trial. Such an expensive and time-consuming legal battle would provide politicians cover from criticisms of their policy failures.

Real solutions will not be found within the existing educational system or through activist funding lawsuits. If more money or more state control were the basis for improved instruction, Allendale’s $17,850 in per-student spending would make it one of the top school districts in the nation. Nor is a new test going to radically shake up the public schools. Better data serves no purpose unless it informs action. Only when parents are brought into the decision-making process through school choice will student assessment work as the basis for an effective and accountable education system.

Randy Page is president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a statewide organization that promotes limited government, lower taxes and increased educational options. Readers may write him at randy@scrgov.org.

2 responses to “Why has standardized testing failed in South Carolina?

  1. For more insight into the ongoing post-PACT testing mess read “PACT with excuses for sad test scores” by Andrew Dys of the Rock Hill Herald .

    “…Certainly, when the old test was a failure, the best recourse is to change the test. The old name had to go, too. The Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test, the old bugaboo that told us every year our kids weren’t doing as well as they should, was clearly at fault.

    Not the schools. Not you. Not me.

    PACT was sent packing along with all those bad scores. If you change the name and the test, nobody will ever remember all the times the scores tanked, right?…” (link)

  2. Why do we not use a nationally recognized test like the IOWA?

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