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Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as Trickling Down

Trickling Down

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The schools that meet the goals the state sets for them will earn cash rewards for teachers and retain relative autonomy over instruction.

Critics of test-based accountability programs have long argued that within a few years of introducing new tests, teachers learn to limit their instruction to what is likely to be assessed--otherwise known as teaching to the test. That strategy will not work with the PACT, Agruso asserts, because students must be able to apply the skills they learned to varying types of questions.

"It is a test based on standards, but the test changes every year," she says. "Teachers must focus on the standards knowing that there will be questions that represent those standards."

The PACT will include multiple-choice questions, as the other tests do. Exit tests will later be administered to high school students. But other types of questions and problems will also be included. Some items will require short explanations, or students will have to show how they solved math problems or be able to complete charts and diagrams. Other questions will require students to write elaborate responses or detail the steps they took to find their answers. On the English/language arts exam, some questions will call for lengthy answers or compositions. Students will be able to take as much time as they need to complete each of the tests.

The tests will be phased in over the next four years; next spring, tests will be given in math and English/language arts for grades 3-8.

In addition to results for individual students, the scores will be released in the form of a report card for each school and district. The state has also taken steps toward ending the promotion of students who don't pass the tests. Schools will be rated on absolute performance--the straight scores--and how much students improve from the previous year. The schools that meet the goals the state sets for them will earn cash rewards for teachers and retain relative autonomy over instruction. Those that do not will get more state assistance or relinquish some of the local authority to the state.

The South Carolina law calls for a progression of corrective measures. Low-performing schools must draft plans for improvement and present them to the education department for review. Review teams from their respective districts will be assigned to monitor the schools' progress. They will receive state grants for professional development, homework centers, class-size reduction, and alternative schools. They will also have access to specialists in instruction and school management. Schools that repeatedly miss their improvement targets could face more state intervention.

Such a grading scale and the sequence of corrective measures acknowledge that some schools have further to go than others.

"More forward-thinking states are setting up accountability programs that reward progress no matter where you start," Gandal of Achieve says. "And they're saying if ample progress isn't shown, there are going to be some consequences."

But the expectation that all students can meet the same standard over time, without leveling the playing field, is unrealistic, some educators say. In the most rural regions of the state, where children are more likely to live with only one parent, whose own education is limited, teachers struggle to give their students basic skills.

Teachers who work in the state's poorest schools fear the test scores will not tell the whole story.

To meet the new state requirements, Allandale teachers must write individual academic plans for students who have been performing below grade level.

"It's a good idea to establish what it is we expect of children and communicate that to teachers," says Dorothy Turbeville, the superintendent in Allendale County in the southern part of the state, where 80 percent of the children come from single-parent families and more than 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. "But we are already stretching limited resources."

Even with the extra assistance the district is receiving from the state this year, there are few extra dollars or staff members in the 2,300-student district to devote to teacher training or curriculum adjustment, Turbeville says. To meet the new state requirements, Allendale teachers must write individual academic plans for students who have been performing below grade level. Other districts have had to meet the requirement as well, but in Allendale, two-thirds of the students fall into that category, a much larger proportion than most other districts.

Still, Turbeville juggled the school calendar this year to give teachers four extra days before classes started to work on their lesson plans and assess their students.

In the nearby Hampton 2 district, Superintendent Leonard McIntyre and the school board decided to skim money from other programs to hire a curriculum and accountability specialist. The new administrator works with teachers in and out of the classroom on teaching strategies and planning. Representatives from the state education department have also been helping the district get up to speed on the new standards with additional professional-development resources. Even so, McIntyre knows many of the students in the 1,600-student district cannot compete with their counterparts in more privileged districts.

"When the test scores come out, they are going to reflect the poverty that exists in this community," McIntyre says. More than 90 percent of the district's students are African-American; 86 percent of all students participate in the federal free-lunch program for disadvantaged children.

"People say that poverty isn't an excuse, but that is reality. Our kids don't get the kinds of exposure and experiences that help them develop and grow and perform on level when they enter school," McIntyre says. "The only thing we can do is work real hard and try to catch them up."

The system by which the state's schools are financed, which places part of the burden on local property revenues, also creates vast differences in what smaller, poorer districts can offer their students.

That kind of inequity, and the expected disparity in test scores between well-to-do and poor schools, may put pressure on legislators to lower the bar, laments Nielsen, the state superintendent. Earlier in the process, legislators heeded concerns that letter grades for schools would be too harsh and decided instead on the designations "excellent," "good," "average," "below average," or "unsatisfactory."

"I'm concerned that there will be political pressure to water down the standards," Nielsen says. "We don't like bad news."

But that is exactly what this state is bracing for when the first round of test results comes out next year. Low scores are expected any time a different test is initiated, says Agruso, the state testing director. Just how much bad news the public is willing to accept is yet to be seen.

The commission appointed by the legislature to oversee the reforms is determined not to compromise, according to Larry Wilson, a member of the panel.

"We want to have the fastest-improving public education system in the country by 2002, and we want to be among the top 10 states for education by 2010," says Wilson, who owns a leading software-development company near Columbia. "That is realistic ... and we are uncompromising on those goals."

The momentum for change seems to be building, educators say. Even the littlest of South Carolinians are learning what it means to meet higher standards.

While there is disagreement about how realistic those goals are, many observers believe the state must take additional measures to move toward them.

The view that some of the state standards already need revision draws widespread agreement. The education department has asked a panel of scientists, university professors, and teachers to review the science standards--which are viewed as too broad and too rigorous--and recommend changes. Many teachers wonder how they will be able to fit all the material to be covered into the already taxed school day. Time constraints may restrict how many of the standards they can cover in a schedule that is already bursting with curricular and noncurricular activities.

Even with the best standards, the greatest barrier to implementing them is whether teachers can adapt them effectively in their instruction.

"A lot of teachers still don't understand what those standards mean for them in the classroom," says Sondra S. Cooney, the director of the middle-grades education initiative for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

Education and government officials are working on a plan to improve teacher education in the state and to ensure that new teachers are prepared to teach to the new standards. The state has already raised requirements for teacher certification. But a shortage of qualified candidates may slow efforts to improve the teaching corps.

"The shift is going to take a generation of teachers," says Ed Dickey, a math professor at the University of South Carolina who helped write the state's math standards. "It's a huge challenge that is not going to be easily met."

State officials are trying to solicit public support and prepare both parents and students for the rigor of the new program. "South Carolina needs to believe that we can accomplish this," says Joanne Anderson, the executive director of the oversight committee, which is charged with implementing the legislation.

"This is not going to fade," she says. "However stressed or overwhelmed we feel, we still have an obligation to help children learn."

The state has launched a massive public relations campaign to prepare the public for the changes. Residents have been perusing copies of the state standards in beauty parlors, doctors' offices, and churches. And the education department has taken out advertisements in various publications.

Newspapers have been quizzing their readers with weekly samples of questions from the new tests.

One question on the sample math test for 3rd graders, for example, shows a picture of a spider. It states that one spider has eight legs. Students must figure out how many legs six spiders have altogether and explain how they found the answer.

The momentum for change seems to be building, educators say. Even the littlest of South Carolinians are learning what it means to meet higher standards.

Although the high-stakes tests begin in the 3rd grade, Cathy Drees, a kindergarten teacher at Blaney Elementary, says it's important to get children accustomed to meeting higher expectations as early as possible.

Her pupils are learning to speak French, and their vocabulary lessons include such weighty words as "truculent" and "ubiquitous," which they spell, define, and practice using in sentences.

"I used to teach letters of the week," says Drees, who began raising standards in her classroom several years ago, about the time the state started expanding kindergarten to a full-day program. Indeed, Drees says, times have changed.

"They can play and take naps at home," she says. "They are here to learn."

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Pages 22-27

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