Originally created 09/27/03

PACT with the devil

On the face of it, South Carolina's elementary and middle schools flunked the federal government's No Child Left Behind bench marks big time. More than 75 percent of the schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress goals, including all but four of Aiken County's 31 schools. In Edgefield County, only one of six schools made the grade.

That's a dismal record, but before parents rush to transfer their kids out of "needs improvement" schools - and where could they send them, with so few adequate performers? - they should take note of an important caveat.

NCLB sets no nationwide standards. Each state sets its own. In the Palmetto State, progress - or the lack thereof - is measured by the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test (PACT) - one of the toughest tests in the nation. Hence, few schools in high-standard states show adequate progress when compared with states with lower standards.

Thus, the quickest way for South Carolina to improve its NCLB scores would be to lower its standards - and that's one thing state officials are rightly loath to do. Education must be about raising standards, not lowering them. South Carolina should be applauded, not condemned, for being ahead of the curve.

It behooves concerned parents to look into why their children's schools are apparently not performing up to par. No Child Left Behind is extremely complex, requiring schools to meet every test, participation and attendance goal, not only for the entire student body, but also for every subgroup, including blacks, Hispanics, the disabled, and the poor. Some schools have up to 31 targets they must meet.

In short, it's good to know why any given school is on the "needs improvement" list before concluding it's a loser. It could be an excellent school that came up short in one or two categories that aren't significantly related to academic performance.

Still, while the Palmetto State has a good explanation for its seemingly poor NCLB showing, there's no rationalizing why more students in grades three through eight scored worse on PACT's basic English proficiency test this year than last year. In math, more performed better.

State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum says the "disturbing" drop in English scores may have been caused by fatigue. A number of teachers, principals and school administrators agree, saying the little darlings got all tired out taking too many exams in too short a time. English arts was the last test taken.

What balderdash! By citing "student fatigue" as the reason for lower scores, educators are letting themselves off the hook. Gov. Mark Sanford doesn't buy the "fatigue" line either. "Kids have been taking multiple tests in South Carolina for over 20 years," said Sanford spokesman Will Folks.

Indeed, one can't just blame the kids for the letdown. When students start to slip, it's usually because parents and teachers slipped first. Maybe fatigue started with them, not the students. Everyone will simply have to do better next year.


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