Trickling Down

Scholars and policymakers have been drafting standards for a decade. Now, it’s time to ensure they’re seeping into the classroom.
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 18, 1998 19 min read
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More than six weeks into the school year, the pressure hasn’t eased for Terri Butts. As happens every year for Butts, a 3rd grade teacher at Blaney Elementary School in a suburb of the South Carolina state capital, a flurry of thoughts about lesson plans and bulletin boards quickly supplanted the usual summer lull. This year, Butts says, the fall frenzy began too early and has persisted. At a time when the rhythm of the school day is usually flowing more smoothly, and teacher and students are getting into sync, Butts is still constantly re-evaluating her lesson plans, teaching strategies, and even the pace of the day.

“I’m in panic mode,” Butts says.

She has plenty of company. Throughout South Carolina, a collective anxiety hangs over teachers and administrators. Even veteran teachers, who have had years to build up their immunity to the manic energy of each new school year, are feeling insecure.

After two decades of reform efforts, the winds of change have kicked up at this state’s 1,100 public schools. As another hurricane season comes to a close, a powerful force is promising to alter the educational landscape. Its name: accountability.

The latest improvement measures pushed by state legislators and education leaders over the past five years have been slowly seeping through the layers of bureaucracy and into the classroom. But the trickle of change has turned into a flood since lawmakers here passed the Education Accountability Act in June. The new law, which promises rewards and threatens sanctions based on student performance, has given the state’s new academic standards some teeth, observers say. With more than 50 new tests to gauge how well students in grades 3-12 meet standards in mathematics, English/language arts, science, and social studies, education leaders, lawmakers, and the public will be able to pinpoint low-performing schools and districts.

That reality has mobilized principals, teachers, and students to take the state standards, and end-of-year tests, more seriously.

At Blaney Elementary and elsewhere, teachers are huddling after school and on weekends to rework their curricula and lesson plans and find ways to improve instruction. Principals are adding days to the school calendar for professional-development workshops and digging deeper to pay for extra materials. District officials are taking greater responsibility for scrutinizing what is being taught. And the state’s 650,000 students are being prodded to focus on their studies--perhaps more than ever before.

“Our teachers were already pretty well prepared,” says Gregory C. Owens, the principal at Summit Parkway Middle School here. Although Columbia’s 16,600-student Richland 2 district, which includes Summit Parkway, had been putting its own performance standards in place in preparation for the state initiative, teachers have been unusually attuned to how and what they are teaching. “The stress level for teachers is at a real high,” Owens says.

Throughout the United States, the development of statewide academic standards has been under way for more than a decade. At this point, nearly all states have either adopted or are planning to adopt guidelines that outline in varying detail what students should know and be able to do in key subjects at different grade levels. South Carolina is one of only a handful to move on to what many experts say is the next step: a comprehensive accountability plan. Such a plan--one that reports scores for individual districts or schools, offers help to those that are struggling, and issues rewards and penalties based on performance and progress--may be the most effective way of ensuring that rigorous academic standards at long last filter down from policymakers and dusty documents to teachers and students, supporters say.

Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas also have comprehensive plans for holding schools accountable for student performance, according to Achieve, a nonprofit group formed by the nation’s governors and prominent business leaders to help raise academic standards. But the challenges of implementing such a system are daunting. California recently adopted the last of its academic standards after more than a decade of work toward improving curricula. State assessments to measure how well California students meet the standards are supposed to follow in that state. But some observers doubt California’s new standards will have the intended impact in the classroom without a system of holding schools accountable for the results.

“The states that have gone beyond just writing standards and developing new assessments, and have really made it clear that this is all going to count in a very real way for schools and for kids, have helped to start to break through the complacency that has existed or the feeling that this is another fad that will go away with the next administration,” says Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for the Cambridge-Mass.-based Achieve.

That complacency had become common in South Carolina. Many educators and residents were weary of the pattern of reform here: A grand plan is unveiled to fanfare, lofty promises are made for improving student achievement, few additional resources or support services are offered to help implement changes, and the program is hastily canceled before it has time to take hold.

Not surprisingly then, curriculum frameworks that were introduced here five years ago to bring more uniform instruction to schools from Charleston to Columbia were met with some skepticism. The broad guidelines for teaching math, English/language arts, foreign languages, and science in grades 3, 6, and 8 were widely distributed, but not mandated. Many districts simply began making piecemeal adjustments to their local curricula, matching some of the expectations outlined in the document with their own. Some districts decided to wait it out, unconvinced that the standards movement would take hold.

Within a couple of years, new state achievement standards--which complemented the frameworks with more detailed descriptions of what students in those grades should be learning--were unveiled. Again, many districts tinkered with their courses of study, while others continued to ignore the state’s efforts.

“Even though they’ve had [several] years to get ready ... there’s been a lack of focus on teachers incorporating best instructional practice,” says outgoing state schools Superintendent Barbara Stock Nielsen, who has helped oversee the most recent round of reforms during her eight-year tenure. “Many people felt that this too shall pass.”

A more aggressive approach to state standards began last year when a commission appointed by the legislature proposed grade-by-grade standards that build on the previous documents. The commission seemed to jump-start the process; suddenly, the wheels of change started rolling. The plan was approved by the state school board in January. Then, just as teachers were preparing to close their grade books on one year, the new law forced them to concentrate immediately on the next.

All summer long and well into the current semester, teachers and curriculum specialists have been comparing their own curricula against each state standard. Line by line, they’re analyzing how their lesson plans, classroom activities, and textbooks address each of the specific topics or requirements outlined in the standards. They’re formulating teaching strategies for filling in the gaps and finding ways to assess what children have learned at various points during the school year.

Preparing the teachers is a “mind boggling” task, Susan A. Agruso, the director of the state’s office of assessment, told a gathering of testing experts at a conference last spring. “It’s getting it into the classroom that is making us crazy.”

The state education department has dispatched a team of staff members to offer guidance on how to comply with the new law and to give a crash course on how to prepare children for both the content and format of the new tests.

During one recent week, the department’s Andrea Keim and Pat Mohr hopped around the state, repeating the workshops they had been conducting all summer for principals and teachers. Principals arrived here one morning from the farthest corners of the state for an abbreviated session on implementing the standards in the classroom.

Keim and Mohr start with the basics. They chronicle the history of the state’s reform process, explain the difference between the frameworks and standards, and define terms and themes found in the standards documents. Next, they suggest resource materials for helping districts evaluate and adjust their own academic programs and walk the principals through examples of how to align local and state curricula.

They also try to ease their audience’s anxiety about the upcoming tests without glossing over the reality of the situation.

“The tests are going to be a real surprise to a lot of students next year,” says Mohr, whose comments are met with a chorus of “ahas.” The students “are used to bubbling-in the answers.”

The districts the principals represent are at various stages of adopting standards-based curricula. Despite their level of readiness for the new guidelines, most express considerable uneasiness about bringing their districts up to speed.

“Our curriculum is already aligned,” says Andrenna Smith, the principal at South Kilbourne Elementary School in the 27,000-student Richland 1 district here. “But that doesn’t end the tension and the fear about whether we are doing it right.”

Those districts that have been following the long road to standards will have to make only minor to moderate changes to their academic programs. Those that have not will have to undergo significant reform in order to catch up, officials say. With South Carolina’s history as one of the worst educational systems in the country, many believe it is time for drastic measures.

“When you’re number 50 [on national comparisons], you’ve got to start somewhere,” says John L. Scott Jr., a Democratic state representative from Richland County, near Columbia. Scott says he still has concerns about how districts mired in the problems of poverty, high teacher turnover, and limited resources will step up to the challenge without more resources. “We can’t just sit here waiting for something to happen,” he says.

When it comes to education, South Carolina is no different from many other Southern states. Students here have always performed below the national average on standardized tests. Certification requirements for teachers have traditionally been minimal and salaries low. Students’ average scores on the SAT college-entrance exam have often been the lowest in the country.

The schools have also been beaten down in the forum of public opinion. Everything wrong with the state, from its poverty to its difficulty filling high-skill jobs, has been blamed on the schools. Heading into this month’s state elections, candidates from both parties pointed to the dismal condition of the education system and the need for wholesale transformation.

“If you are running for dog catcher in this state, you talk about how bad the schools are,” state chief Nielsen, a Republican, says.

Current policies grew out of the education initiatives pushed by Richard W. Riley, now the U.S. secretary of education, who earned his reputation as an education reformer when he was governor of South Carolina in the 1980s. Although many of the changes made during his two terms--including increased state funding for schools and the introduction of basic-skills tests--have proved inadequate, they started the state on the path to real reform, observers now say.

The latest plan also hinges on testing. This time, though, officials say, the tests are aligned to rigorous standards and provide a more accurate picture of what students know and are able to do.

Children in this state are accustomed to taking tests. Each year since 1981, they have taken a basic-skills test in math and reading; the tests are not considered very rigorous or a good gauge of what students have learned, however. The students have taken a separate standardized test in those subjects to show how they match up against national norms. Many districts also do additional testing. And some 226,000 children in 800 public schools participated last year in a field test of the new state assessments.

Those assessments, the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests, or PACT, will be unlike any test South Carolina students have taken before, according to Agruso. “There will be a lot of writing in all subject areas and more challenging questions that will require higher-level thinking and problem-solving,” she says.

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.

“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.”

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.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 1998 edition of Education Week as Trickling Down


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