Charting school progress

When every school district in the state fails to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards, the problem may lie less with schools and educators than with the system by which progress is measured.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools nationwide to meet milestones for achievement each year. While this is a federal requirement, states are permitted to establish their own standards for proficiency.

South Carolina had established its PACT test to measure the performance of schools in the state before No Child Left Behind was approved. So, when Congress mandated that states establish proficiency standards, South Carolina simply continued to use PACT.

It has been a matter of both pride and frustration that South Carolina's standards are among the highest of any state in the nation. As a result, the Palmetto State perennially ranks near the bottom of the national list in scholastic achievement and the performance of its schools.

This year is no exception. While some schools did well within their respective districts, no districts as a whole met AYP standards. Only six of Rock Hill's 22 schools met AYP, two fewer than last year, and two schools will face sanctions for not making AYP this year.

In Fort Mill, where test scores are among the highest in the state and rank with national figures, five schools met AYP. But four did not.

In York, York Comprehensive High School was the only high school in the county to meet AYP. But three out of seven York schools failed.

Great Falls High School was the only Chester County school to meet AYP this year. In Clover, three of nine schools didn't meet the standard.

While almost any school has room for improvement, we don't believe this showing by local schools is reason for widespread despair. Rather, we think it should spark an overhaul of the PACT system as well as No Child Left Behind, which Congress must decide whether to renew next year.

Critics were right about some things from the start. Why, for example, would learning-disabled and non-English-speaking students be required to take the same proficiency tests as all other students? Isn't it obvious that this would skew the AYP measurements?

Critics also pointed out that once a school achieves a level of excellence, making significant additional progress becomes far more difficult. Again, why isn't that obvious?

Finally, why require national proficiency standards but allow each state to set the bar wherever it chooses? The bar should be uniform nationwide.

We realize that schools and school districts must be accountable to the families they serve. And establishing a uniform scale by which to measure progress can be useful.

But measuring proficiency is only half the solution. Schools also must be enabled to pinpoint problems, find solutions and implement them.

Current testing procedures do not fulfill those needs. Test results come too late to help teachers and administrators address the problems of low-performing students before they move to the next grade level, are retained or drop out.

No Child Left Behind, which includes sanctions for "failing" schools, offers little in the way of federal resources to improve those schools. Where, for example, are the incentives for skilled teachers to work in low-performing, low-paying school districts?

Instead of inducing dismay, the failure of South Carolina's school districts to meet yearly progress standards should serve as a call to arms. Our schools and our students deserve a system that does a better job of both measuring their accomplishments and of meeting their needs.

The real problem may be the way South Carolina measures school progress.

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