In limbo now, will local school accountability finally get real...or not?

By Tom Grubisich

We're in limbo on accountability in how well public schools in Charleston County and the rest of the state are performing. And we'll stay there until students take the newly adopted SC Ready assessment tests in the spring and the state adopts standards to grade schools on how well their students do on the tests.

Not only are there the new SC Ready assessments, but also the implications of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the replacement for No Child Left Behind. ESSA gives states more leeway in developing tests and setting criteria on how test results will be measured when schools are graded on their students' academic performance.

Trying to find steady footing in limbo, I went to Melanie Barton, executive director of the independent state Education Oversight Committee, the bipartisan group appointed by the legislature and the governor that makes recommendations to the legislature and the state Department of Education on assessment tests and how schools are rated, based on test scores..

"We are now looking at how to create an accountability system that incentivizes behaviors that are best for all students and can move them toward success in colleges and careers," Barton told me.

Under federal law, states must identify any minority group that is underperforming. That means that black students will continue to get special attention, and the state will be under pressures -- leeway from ESSA or no -- to ensure that black students, overall, get a quality education that will prepare them for college or a career. Equal-quality education for black students has been and remains an unfulfilled promise by the Charleston County school system for decades. It's a continuing problem among all the Tricounty school systems. .

Up to now, the magnitude of the achievement gap between white and black students has been seriously blurred by state accountability standards that permitted many predominantly black schools in Charleston County to be graded as "average," when they were actually "below average" and lower.

The unreliability of the last report cards for predominantly black schools in the county -- issued in 2014 -- was underscored by results of the tougher ACT Aspire assessment tests that students took in 2015 (see chart below). The state did not issue school report cards based on the ACT Aspire tests, but the raw test results showed that black students in Charleston County elementary schools scored much lower than they did in 204 under the old PASS assessment tests.

Charleston County elementary schools appeared to be doing well when they were graded on the results of 2014 PASS test scores in reading and math (first green bars in charts covering 3rd-grade results)). But the 2015 ACT Aspire test results showed much less progress (second green bars in charts) . It's an open question whether the state will adopt tougher accountability standards based on new SC Ready assessment tests that will be given this spring. CREDIT Reading and math gaps are from Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative.

Charleston County elementary schools appeared to be doing well when they were graded on the results of 2014 PASS test scores in reading and math (first green bars in charts covering 3rd-grade results)). But the 2015 ACT Aspire test results showed much less progress (second green bars in charts) . It's an open question whether the state will adopt tougher accountability standards based on new SC Ready assessment tests that will be given this spring.

CREDIT Reading and math gaps are from Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative.

The ACT Aspire results showed that Charleston County schools overall -- whatever their racial enrollments -- did not do well. But the full impact was obscured because the state was on a "pause" in rating schools last year.

I asked Barton if the new SC Ready assessment tests that are replacing the short-lived ACT Aspire tests will lead to report cards that truly measure how well schools in Charleston County are performing, in particular predominantly black ones.  Her answer: 

“I don't know the answer to that question. The EOC won't see the tests until after [they're administered] this spring. We will have to approve [them], though after that. In addition to their rigor, the larger question is how the "cut" scores are set. In simple terms, that means, how many questions would a student need to answer correctly at each grade level to be considered proficient or on grade level? The bar has to be set at a level to guarantee students will graduate college and career ready.”

I went next  to Ted Legasey, who was the spark plug behind the recently formed Movement for Effective Schools for All Charleston County Children, which sees a "total failure" of the state accountability system through the last round of school report cars and by the Charleston school system in making meaningful progress in closing the historical white-black achievement gap.

This is Legasey's look at the fork in the road to credible standards of accountability:

 “I am a fan of Melanie Barton.  She understands the real facts about the state of public education in South Carolina and is a clear voice for reform and what needs to be done.  I have no doubt she will try her best to ensure that SC standards are high, that the state assessment against those standards is rigorous, and that state report cards are fair and clear. But, that said, she is not in control of all these things.  Ultimately the Legislature, the  State Superintendent of Education and the Board of Education have a hand in all of this.

“The first ''test' of the seriousness of the State's intent will be the rigor that is designed into the the new assessment that will be administered to 3rd throuth 8th graders in ELA and Math in the spring....The new assessment is…being developed by the same vendor who developed the PASS tests.

“It will be based on South Carolina's version of common core standards, which are reported to be 'high standards,' but we'll have to wait and see. If the results of the new assessment look like ACT Aspire results in terms of the percentage of students who meet or exceed standards, we can be encouraged that South Carolina may be on the right path.  However, if the results look more like PASS results, it will be very discouraging.