COLUMBIA - For the fifth straight year, South Carolina had a record number of first-graders score "ready" for school this year.
State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum released the results of the Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery at a Columbia news conference Friday. In August, nearly 51,000 pupils took the untimed test, which measures vocabulary, motor skills, counting ability, hand-eye coordination and story comprehension.
Only 13,000 of those first-graders didn't measure up to the state's standards. That means more than 85 percent of them did. The results are the best since the test was first taken in 1979, Mrs. Tenenbaum said. Back then, only 60 percent were ready for first grade.
Results from previous tests show scores reached a plateau nearly a decade ago, then fell slightly in 1996. After that, they rose again. Educators say the better scores coincide with the beginning of legislative efforts to make full-day kindergarten available to children whose parents wanted it.
"It's so wonderful to see these numbers continue to climb," Mrs. Tenenbaum said. "Students who start off with a solid foundation are much more likely to be successful in their school careers, and by focusing on the importance of early childhood education, we've been able to get students on the right track from the beginning."
Getting on the right track meant opening the Office of Early Childhood Education last year to help teachers and parents prepare youngsters for school. It also coordinates community programs and agencies that can help. The Legislature also poured money into Gov. Jim Hodges' First Steps program. Its main objective is to make sure pupils are proficient readers by third grade.
This year, 12 school districts - including Allendale and McCormick - scored five points higher than they did last year. And 15 schools had a 100 percent success rate, but none were in the Aiken area.
For the third straight year, South Carolina's best first-grade readiness scores came from a small, rural district where two-thirds of the pupils come from high-poverty families. Bamberg District 1, where only 79.5 percent of first-graders were ready for school in 1995, had 96.8 percent ready this year.
But the state's better marks haven't meant better scores on the Palmetto Achievement Test. Fewer than three-quarters of the state's third-graders passed all or part of that exam this year. Given to pupils in grades three through eight, PACT determines whether a child moves up a grade or repeats.
Those results have prompted South Carolina to phase in a new test for first-graders next year. The thought is that a new test will better prepare pupils for the PACT.
Highlights from the Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery analysis released Friday include:
The wealth of a child's family remains a predictor of readiness. Only 78 percent of pupils whose family income was low enough to qualify them for free lunches scored "ready" on the test. Children from slightly wealthier families did better - of those who qualified for reduced-price lunches, 87.3 percent were ready for first grade. And of those whose parents could pay for their lunches, 91.9 percent were ready.
A total of 87.7 percent of girls scored ready, compared to 82.9 percent of boys.
Ethnic backgrounds also made a difference: 90.7 percent of white pupils scored ready, compared to 79.6 percent of black students and 62.1 percent of Hispanics.
Aiken: 1,838, or 82.9 percent, tested ready
Allendale: 151, or 93.5 percent, tested ready
Edgefield: 324, or 83.3 percent, tested ready
McCormick: 87, or 90.8 percent, tested ready
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.