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SC school awards criteria spark questions

After honoring 70 percent of South Carolina schools for achieving among the state’s top performers, education officials are looking into whether the celebrated Palmetto Gold and Silver Awards program has become watered down.

Across the state, 853 schools won a gold or silver award, compared with 500 schools last year.

In York County, 47 schools won at least one award.

The awards, based on schools’ ratings on state report cards released in 2011, are intended to reward schools for academic achievement and for closing the achievement gap between minority students and white students.

There are multiple ways to win, and schools awarded gold might actually have disproportionate achievement results.

The influx of new winners came from an additional way to qualify for an award that wasn’t previously part of the criteria, officials said.

Starting in the 2010-11 academic year, a school could win if students improved performance on standardized tests for two straight years. That’s on top of several other ways a school can qualify.

It opened the door to 312 campuses that wouldn’t have won otherwise, officials said.

In his office’s award announcement, Superintendent of Education Mick Zais pointed to the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, which designed the winning criteria.

“While congratulations are in order for many schools,” Zais said, “it cannot be overlooked (that) the new criteria added by the Education Oversight Committee drastically increased the number of award recipients.

“This issue should be corrected by the Education Oversight Committee so the public is not misled, and those schools that made real gains in student achievement do not have their recognition diminished because of award inflation.”

The EOC didn’t actually add the new criteria last year and never intended to depreciate the Gold and Silver program, EOC director Melanie Barton said.

Several factors contributed.

The EOC had to revamp the award criteria in 2008 to match a new standardized test called the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards. It had to be done quickly and was approved by the state’s Board of Education, Barton said.

“We had to get it up and running immediately,” she said.

Part of that change included the additional way to qualify, which was triggered in 2010-11 after three years of test scores were available.

The EOC has been looking into it and will meet with Zais’ staff this week to discuss how to change the program.

“We’ve been working on this issue, but it’s not an overnight thing,” Barton said.

The key question, she said, is: “What needs to be changed to make it more competitive?”

The group also will look at making awards less confusing, Education Department spokesman Jay Ragley said.

For instance, a school wins a gold award for being ranked “excellent” in at least one of two categories on state report cards that rate schools. To parents, Ragley said, it could appear that a school winning gold for reaching “excellent” in both categories is equal to a school winning gold that’s rated “excellent” in one category but “below average” in the other.

A school also can win for closing the achievement gap between student groups, which wasn’t originally part of the program. Schools narrowing the gap were once honored with a separate award from the EOC. But, Barton said, the Department of Education combined it with the Gold and Silver awards in 2008.

If education officials agree on changes, they could take effect in time for the next school year.

While the awards program might be less competitive than intended, Barton said, schools still deserve credit for their achievements.

“They met it based on the criteria put in front of them,” she said. “Kudos to them.”

York County’s winners

Gold Award for general performance

Rock Hill schools – Dutchman Creek Middle, India Hook Elementary, Rosewood Elementary, The Children’s School at Sylvia Circle

Fort Mill schools – Fort Mill Elementary, Fort Mill High, Fort Mill Middle, Gold Hill Elementary, Gold Hill Middle, Nation Ford High, Orchard Park Elementary, Pleasant Knoll Elementary, Riverview Elementary, Springfield Elementary, Springfield Middle, Sugar Creek Elementary

Clover schools – Bethel Elementary, Bethany Elementary, Clover High, Crowders Creek Elementary, Griggs Road Elementary, Larne Elementary, Oakridge Middle

Silver Award for general performance

Rock Hill schools – Belleview Elementary, Castle Heights Middle, Ebenezer Avenue Elementary, Ebinport Elementary, Finley Road Elementary, Independence Elementary, Lesslie Elementary, Mount Holly Elementary, Mt. Gallant Elementary, Northside Elementary, Old Pointe Elementary, Rawlinson Road Middle, Richmond Drive Elementary, Saluda Trail Middle, Sullivan Middle, Sunset Park Elementary, York Road Elementary

York schools – Cotton Belt Elementary, Hickory Grove-Sharon Elementary, Jefferson Elementary, York Intermediate

Clover schools – Clover Middle, Kinard Elementary

Gold Award for closing the achievement gap

Fort Mill schools – Fort Mill High, Nation Ford High

York schools – York Comprehensive High

Silver Award for closing the achievement gap

Fort Mill schools – Springfield Middle, Sugar Creek Elementary

York schools – York Intermediate

Clover schools – Clover High, Griggs Road Elementary, Oakridge Middle