There is no doubt that in spite of headlines about improving test scores, our state still has a long way to go when it comes to educating our children. And no progress will be made unless we accept that and adopt an attitude that is based on solutions to problems we have acknowledge exist.
Whenever policy makers or analysts ask tough questions or discuss how far we have to go rather than how far we have come, they are accused of being politically motivated at best or against public education at worst. It has become almost taboo to present "bad news" in education. But as long as large number of our students cannot read at a proficient level and as long as schools continue to score below standards on state report cards, responsible policy leaders will just have to bear the burden of political incorrectness and dare to criticize the status quo.
It is important that we recognize the achievements of our students and our teachers when it comes to some increase in test scores, such as on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test or the PACT test. Our students are showing some improvement, which is evidence that reform measures like the 1998 S.C. Education Accountability Act and the Federal 2001 No Child Left Behind Act are having the desired effect of raising standards and increasing accountability. But we cannot afford to sweep existing realities, however grim, under the rug.
For example, while news headlines claimed S.C. students performed well on NAEP, few articles bothered to examine the more troubling statistics that were revealed in the test scores of our fourth- and eighth-graders. While it may be true that South Carolina's eighth-grade math scores were the same or better than 28 states, it is also true that only 21 percent of those tested scored at the proficient level, 41 percent scored basic and a full 32 percent scored below basic. That means that roughly a third of our eighth-graders lack even basic math skills, much less perform at the proficient level that No Child Left Behind mandates for all children by 2014. Furthermore - and this is an important point - only 5 percent of S.C. eighth-graders tested were advanced in math.
The eighth-grade reading scores were not any better. The news did report that those scores were the same or better than 17 other states. That is hardly a good statistic. But what is much more disturbing is again that roughly one-third (31 percent) of our eighth-graders scored below basic in reading, and only 22 percent were at the proficient level.
Other national yardsticks show that our children do not compete as well as those in other states. For example, according to a new report prepared for the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, our state has the lowest high school completion rate in the country - 49 percent of our ninth-graders do not graduate high school within four years.
But again, while it may be useful to know where we stand in comparison to other states, such rankings are much less important than the real numbers. If our 49 percent drop-out rate were the lowest in the nation instead of the highest, it would still be an unacceptable number.
South Carolina has been ranked high in one area, and that is our effort to improve our standards and accountability. Our Accountability Act was passed long before the virtually identical No Child Left Behind. We have made some modest progress, and that is commendable. But we cannot allow ourselves to ignore the real education picture or the sake of a positive headline. Ourstate does care about educating our children, and we have made a high financial commitment to doing that. But we must figure out innovative ways to change the education numbers for the better - not in reference to how well or poorly we stack up against others, but by how well we are doing with regard to every single child in our schools. That must be the focus of any education debate, among state and local education officials, the General Assembly and the general public.
Ashley Landess is vice president for Public Affairs of the South Carolina Policy Council Education Foundation.