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October 25, 2006 | South Carolina Headlines


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South Carolina schools: average performance, lagging graduation rates
August 23, 2006

The academic performance of South Carolina students is on par with the rest of nation and improving more rapidly than other states, reports abusiness-financed research study that was released today.  But the same study says that too few students are making it through the system.

The Monitor Group, an internationally respected management consulting firm with offices around the world, conducted the study for South Carolina business groups that included the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, the Palmetto Institute and the Palmetto Business Forum.  Mack Whittle, Chairman and CEO of Carolina First and immediate past president of the South Carolina Chamber, released the Monitor Group study at news
conferences today in Greenville, Charleston and Columbia.

Whittle said the business groups spearheaded the project because South Carolina business leaders were getting contradictory messages about how the state's K-12 schools were doing. 

"We wanted a rigorous outside assessment of South Carolina's educational performance, and that is exactly what we got," Whittle said. "I think the key message is that there is some very good news.  The improvement in most of our test scores over the last five to 5 to 10 years is tops in the country.  At the same time, our high school graduation rate is much too low.  We've got to figure out how to improve that without relaxing our standards."

Monitor vetted numerous information sources to collect accurate data that could be compared across states.  Using these data, it measured student performance across a host of metrics. 

"Contrary to widespread perception in South Carolina," the Monitor Group report said, "the quality of student performance in the state is typically on par with the U.S. average, and rapidly improving.  The principal issue is the quantity of students successfully passing through the system.  Regardless of how high school completion rates are calculated, and which potentially mitigating factors are controlled for, South Carolina significantly lags the U.S. average high school graduation rate, and is falling further behind." State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, who accompanied Whittle and the Monitor Group's Kurt Dassel at the three news conferences, said the study's positive assessment of South Carolina's academic improvement echoed other studies that have made similar
findings.  And she agreed with Whittle on the importance of improving the state's graduation rate - the percentage of students transiting high school "on time" in four years.

"South Carolina has some of the most challenging high school graduation requirements in the country," she said.  "We're one of only three states that requires both an exit exam and 24 academic credits for a diploma.  Some states require only 13 credits and no exit exam.  But we're not going to back down from the challenge posed by our high expectations."

Improving graduation rates is a prime goal of South Carolina's landmark Education and Economic Development Act, which works to help students see the connections between what they learn in school and how they will one day use those academic skills in the real world.

"The EEDA is about keeping students engaged in school and focused on the future," Tenenbaum said. 

Under the EEDA, high school students will work with their parents and guidance counselors to create a personalized graduation plan centered on his or her goals.  Part of that plan includes selecting an academic focus - a "career cluster" - that will organize high school coursework around each student's individual strengths and interests.  To better
advise both students and parents, the General Assembly has pledged to reduce the ratio of students to guidance counselors from 700-1 to a more manageable 300-1. 

"Other exciting ideas have come from the High School Redesign Commission I created and co-chaired with Mack Whittle - initiatives that focus not just on keeping students in high school but also encouraging more of them to pursue college degrees," Tenenbaum said.  "Two of these ideas are receiving a lot of attention: allowing students to earn high
school credits by demonstrating mastery as opposed to "seat time" in class, and allowing students to get credit for college-level courses while they are still in high school.  Both are key agenda items for the new Office of High School Redesign I created at the State Department of Education."

Tenenbaum said the goals of improving graduation rates and reducing dropout rates are linked, a key reason why she established the South Carolina Truancy and Dropout Prevention Center at the Education Department.  The center promotes accurate processing and tracking of truancy and other status offenses; serves as a clearinghouse on
research-based programs that reduce truancy and dropout rates; and provides resources to create effective community-based programs. Since the Truancy Center began, the number of South Carolina referrals to court for truancy has decreased from nearly 3,000 in 2000 to fewer than 1,000 in 2005. 

In addition, each South Carolina school district will soon be required to implement a research-based program to identify students at risk for dropping out and help them catch up with their peers before they enter high school.  A menu of programs for school districts to choose from is being identified with help from the National Dropout Prevention Center
at Clemson. "Credit recovery" is aimed at helping students who fall behind in their class work.  Tenenbaum said that if a student can't keep up in a particular course, an opportunity would be provided for that student to catch up in a self-paced alternative program offered on line, via the Internet.  This exciting "virtual school" concept, which the Education Department is piloting this fall, will also offer opportunities to accelerate learning for gifted students and to provide Advanced Placement courses for rural areas that don't have enough students to support these classes.

The Monitor Group's report found that while South Carolina test scores - primarily National Assessment of Educational Progress scores mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act - average about the same as other states, South Carolina continues to lag behind other states on the SAT.  But the new report also noted that South Carolina is among the nation's leaders in increasing SAT scores. 

"If we can maintain a high national ranking on SAT improvement," Tenenbaum said, "we can eliminate once and for all one of the last negative things that those who are always looking for faults can say about our schools."

Tenenbaum wants the General Assembly to fund South Carolina's participation in a three-tiered testing program sponsored by the ACT college entrance exam called the Education Planning and Assessment System.  EPAS provides schools, students and parents with information on student progress. 

Under Tenenbaum's plan, the state would pay for all students to participate in EPAS, including ACT's EXPLORE testing for eighth-graders, PLAN testing for 10th-graders and the ACT itself for 11th-graders.  A number of states, including Colorado, Illinois and Michigan, pay ACT costs for all high school students.

EPAS data tracks student readiness for education after high school and gives counselors helpful information to use in assisting students with career planning. 

"The College Board has no similar program involving the SAT," Tenenbaum said, "but there's little doubt that EPAS will help students improve on both the ACT and the SAT."

Whittle said the state's business community plans to communicate the results of the Monitor Group report to inform and stimulate debate on education in South Carolina.  It also plans to repeat the effort in future years to track improvement. 

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