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October 25, 2006 | South Carolina Headlines


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South Carolina praised as new study shows huge gaps in student performance on state and national
March 8, 2006

COLUMBIA - A new national study provides ammunition for education policymakers who want all states to use the same standards to judge whether students are performing at "proficient" academic levels. 

The Education Trust found that in most states, students scored far higher on state assessments than on federal assessments required by the No Child Left Behind Act.  Those large scoring gaps - as great as 60 percentage points - are certain to intensify the smoldering national debate about whether states have set their proficiency standards too

South Carolina, by contrast, is one of a handful of states with high proficiency standards on its state tests (Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests, or PACT).  Under NCLB, each state was allowed to determine its own targets for proficiency, and most states set lower goals.

The Education Trust reported large scoring gaps between state and federal tests in fourth- and eighth-grade mathematics and fourth- and eighth-grade reading.

In fourth-grade math, for example, 41 percent of South Carolina students scored proficient or above in 2005 PACT testing, compared to 36 percent scoring proficient or above on  federal tests (the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP) required by NCLB.  That's a five percentage-point gap.  In Nebraska, the same percentage scored proficient on federal tests, but 78 percent scored proficient on state tests.  That's a 42-point gap.

"Setting the bar high, as we've done here in South Carolina, means that our students' state and federal scores are very similar," said State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum.  "But it also means that South Carolina schools have a much taller mountain to climb in meeting federal goals under NCLB."

States with low proficiency standards "look better" each year in terms of the percentage of their schools that meet NCLB goals for Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.  That's why Tenenbaum has consistently urged a national standard for proficiency.

The Education Trust study is not the first to spotlight the issue.  The 2005 "Quality Counts" report by the respected national magazine Education Week also compared state and federal test score results.  Education Week said 76 percent of fourth-graders in both Iowa and Montana scored proficient on their states' reading assessments while only 35 percent of those states' fourth-graders did on NAEP, resulting in a discrepancy of 41 points.

Education Week reported only single-digit discrepancies in South Carolina between proficiency results on PACT and NAEP.  Discrepancies for other states ranged from 0 to 69 points, Mississippi's difference between its 4th-grade performance on the state reading assessment and NAEP.

In 2003, researchers at the non-profit Northwest Evaluation Association found large disparities in what states consider to be proficient performance.  In fifth-grade reading, for example, Colorado's reading standards were set so low that 82 percent of fifth-graders nationwide met them.  But only 27 percent of the nation's fifth-graders were able to meet South Carolina's standards. 

The NWEA study compared student performance on its own reading and math tests to student performance on state-administered tests.  Texas and Colorado had the lowest standards for "proficient" performance among the 14 states in the study.  By contrast, South Carolina's standards were ranked either first or second in reading and math in grades 3-8, with the exception of fourth-grade math, which was rated third.

Earlier studies commissioned by The Princeton Review and the U.S. Department of Education found similar disparities and noted the rigor of South Carolina's proficiency standards.  And U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings praised South Carolina's high AYP targets in a nationally reported April 7, 2005 speech. 

NCLB requires all students to be "proficient" on state tests by 2014.  Title I schools that don't make yearly improvements toward state goals (AYP) are subject to sanctions.  Beyond problems with the public's perceptions about schools, not meeting AYP also means NCLB sanctions that can include requiring districts to pay for transporting students to other schools, requiring districts to pay for individual tutoring and other supplemental services, and possibly even firing school staff.

Tenenbaum said she continues to believe that Congress should set a common proficiency standard.

"A credible national accountability system must have an equitable measuring system," she said.  "South Carolina's schools will compete with any schools in the country, but that won't be apparent if other states keep getting praise for lower performance.  If we want an
accurate picture of the quality of America's schools, then the current rating system has to be.

For more information visit www.edtrust.org.

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