State has tough test

The ranking of South Carolina's Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test as one of the toughest standardized achievement tests for schoolchildren in the nation may be a source of pride for some. But it is questionable as to whether the tests do much to actually benefit students.

Results of an annual study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute again rank South Carolina's student proficiency test as one of the nation's most difficult. The PACT test dates to the state's 1998 Education Accountability Act, which sought to establish a performance-based accountability system for public education. When the federal No Child Left Behind law was enacted, South Carolina elected to keep its test.

Federal law requires all states to set standards to assure that every student -- regardless of race, income level or even disability -- is able to master grade-level standards by 2014. But the difficulty of the different state tests varies widely. The states that set the bar low are, understandably, more likely to have high achievement levels. But that, according to the report, often is simply an illusion.

Nonetheless, by setting high standards, South Carolina often finds itself at or near the bottom in national rankings of student proficiency. And while that, too, is illusory, it does little to enhance the reputation of the state's education system.

Officials with the Fordham Institute have recommended that Congress establish a uniform test that would be administered to students nationwide. With all students taking the same test, measuring achievement from state to state -- and pinpointing the strategies used by states that show high rates of proficiency -- would be easier.

While we support a standard national test, we also hope that Congress will consider a complete overhaul of No Child Left Behind when it comes up for renewal next year. NCLB originally was envisioned as a way to hold schools accountable for failing to teach students basic skills. But, in reality, it has focused more on punishing schools that fail as opposed to providing the ideas and resources needed to help them succeed.

The emphasis on testing also has tended to encourage "teaching for the test," in which materials likely to be covered on the test dominate curricula whether that is in the students' best interests or not. And, with South Carolina's testing schedule, results are not available soon enough to provide information to teachers that might help them in the classroom.

State superintendent Jim Rex is ready to do away with the PACT test. He calls the state's testing system "time-consuming, duplicative, overly bureaucratic and bewilderingly complex." Even if Congress does little to change NCLB, we hope the state will overhaul its testing system.

Granted, accountability is important. Communities need to know whether their schools are providing their children with an adequate education.

But the goal of any accountability system should be to help failing schools address problems and improve performance. And if the testing process, itself, takes up too many resources and too much time in the classroom, then it is counterproductive.

The nation needs an accountability system that sets high standards but one that also contributes to efforts to meet those standards without adding mountains of red tape, eating away at valuable classroom time and heaping stress on teachers and students alike.


State's standardized achievement test is among most difficult, but does it benefit students?

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