Fewer elementary and middle schools than ever before in York County and across the state reached federal student achievement goals this year, according to results released Wednesday.
Educators statewide said they saw the drops coming and blame the dismal ratings on what they call the government's "unreasonable expectations."
Meanwhile, parents tried to sort through the noise and discern what it all means.
High school, district and state results have been delayed because of a calculation error, according to the S.C. Department of Education.
This year marks nearly the halfway point in No Child Left Behind, a federally mandated push to have every public school student in America scoring "proficient" by 2014.
The law, enacted in 2001, requires schools to show that all kinds of students are performing at certain levels. Schools must report state test results for all racial groups, students with disabilities, students who speak limited English and those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. If a school has fewer than 40 students in a group, results are not tallied.
A school that hits all of its targets makes "adequate yearly progress," or AYP.
Schools that miss academic targets for any group -- or that fail to test at least 95 percent of students in any eligible group -- do not meet the federal standard.
"We knew this year we'd see a significant increase in elementary and middle schools that wouldn't make the goal," said S.C. Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. "We've chosen to set very high goals in terms of what proficient means."
That definition of "proficient," educators say, is part of the reason so many schools fail to make AYP. The other is what they call a "moving target."
Every three years until 2014, the percentage of students who must score proficient jumps. Last year, for example, 38 percent of elementary and middle schoolers had to score proficient on state tests in English and language arts. This year, the requirement leapt to 59 percent.
The result is a stark drop in schools that make AYP.
In Rock Hill, just two elementary schools hit their targets, out of 21 elementary and middle schools for which data was reported. That's five fewer than last year.
Northside Elementary missed its goals for the second straight year, which means the school must offer transfers as a penalty.
Schools, such as Northside, that receive federal money under the government's Title I program have more at stake. If they miss a target, they face sanctions.
Last year, Rock Hill's Sunset Park and Independence elementaries were hit with sanctions after consecutively failing to make AYP.
"I think that the goals are too ambitious," said Superintendent Lynn Moody. Also, "the labels are, I think, what confuses people. I think it's very difficult for parents to understand."
Fort Mill schools, often mentioned among the state's highest performers, saw a major drop. Only Gold Hill Elementary made AYP this year, compared to five schools that did so last year.
"It bothers me that only one school is at the standard," said Vanessa Bergvist, a Fort Mill resident and member of Riverview Elementary's PTO. "But what does that mean?
"In the past, I thought all the (Fort Mill) schools performed at the level they should, because we've always been told they're great. To me, that doesn't sound good. That sounds like something happened."
The government's requirements are unreachable, said Jan West, Fort Mill schools coordinator for assessment and accountability.
"Taking into consideration that in South Carolina, proficient is above grade level, and given some kids' disabilities, 100 proficient is unreasonable."
In York, Hickory Grove/Sharon Elementary was the only school to make AYP, compared to three that did so last year.
"My goal in this district isn't to focus on AYP and No Child Left Behind," said Superintendent Russell Booker. "My goal is to make sure we're improving from year to year.
"I'm not saying I don't put much stock in AYP, because I do. But if a school is at 38 percent proficiency (for a student group) one year, then are they going to be at 50 percent the next year? Probably not. The challenge that we're facing is trying to figure out what we need to do to improve."
Five of Clover's elementary and middle schools made AYP, compared to six last year.
"The problem is the pass/fail system," said Superintendent Marc Sosne. "There isn't a way to acknowledge progress. I think No Child Left Behind doesn't give people that hope."
Clover's Kinard Elementary, for example, hit 12 of 13 targets. Not enough students on free and reduced-price lunch scored proficient in English and language arts, so Kinard didn't make AYP.
That can be demoralizing for teachers, Sosne said.
No Child Left Behind lets states devise their own timelines to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
Some chose to keep the bar low until the waning years, when student scores will have to surge to reach 100 percent -- a tactic known as "backloading."
Others chose incremental approaches, raising the bar every so often.
South Carolina's standards are among the nation's toughest.
In 2003, The New York Times reported on two studies that found that three-quarters of children across the country would fail South Carolina's fifth-grade test, while seven out of eight would ace the third-grade tests in Colorado and Texas.
"South Carolina has absolutely been a leader in setting meaningful rigorous standards," said Daria Hall, assistant director for K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, a nonpartisan, nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. "That should be celebrated. But it's not enough just to set standards.
"The conversation can't be, 'we have these high standards, therefore, it's unreasonable for us to meet them.'"
AYP at a glance
These schools made "adequate yearly progress:"
India Hook Elementary
Gold Hill Middle
Hickory Grove/Sharon Elementary
Crowders Creek Elementary
Crowders Creek Middle
Griggs Road Elementary
Discovery Charter of Lancaster
McDonald Green Elementary