Pandemic test scores raise alarm for S.C. superintendent

Published: Sep. 1, 2021 at 10:11 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 1, 2021 at 12:24 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The school year just started, but grades are already starting to come in for South Carolina schools.

While officials with the Department of Education say they expected a dip in students being at grade level because of COVID-19, the final numbers worry them.

“I am very very concerned with the results,” said state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman. “As you can see if you look deeply, our students, particularly our younger students who this was their first time taking a summative assessment, our third graders, they did not show as much growth as we had hoped and had been shown in previous years.”

How Aiken County fared

If we look at Aiken County, students in the district lagged behind the state average in English and math.

Looking at math first, fewer than half of students met those expectations in third through eighth grades.

Performance steadily dropped each year from third through sixth grade.

Third-graders performed the best, with 43 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations.

The lowest-performing group was sixth grade, with less than a quarter of students hitting the mark.

When it comes to reading and writing, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations was generally higher, but still less than half of students met those expectations in every grade level.

There’s a gradual decline from third to sixth grade, with scores coming back up in middle school.

The highest-performing group was third grade at 41 percent.

Sixth grade was again the lowest-performing group.

When it comes to on-time graduation rates, Aiken County outpaced the state average, with a 90 percent rate, compared to the state average of 83 percent.

The dropout rate did rise slightly from the previous year to just under 2½ percent.

But the dropout recovery rate went up by almost 2 percent, now sitting at 5½ percent.

That measures the percent of students who dropped out and re-enrolled.

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A look at the statewide numbers

The South Carolina School Report Card compiles the results of the federal end-of-year assessment given to students in third grade and higher. The SC Department of Education asked the federal government for a waiver to not give these tests last year, as was done in 2020 but was denied.

From the 2018-2019 school year until last year, third-graders in South Carolina meeting or exceeding their grade-level expectations in math dropped 10.8 percent.

third graders in South Carolina
third graders in South Carolina(Adam Mintzer)

Education experts say third grade is a pivotal year for a student’s reading and writing skills. While third graders did worse overall in English than they did in Math, the drop was less significant.

Education experts say third grade is a pivotal year for a student’s reading and writing skills....
Education experts say third grade is a pivotal year for a student’s reading and writing skills. While third graders did worse overall in English than they did in Math, the drop was less significant.(Adam Mintzer)

However, the Department of Education is asking people not to get too focused on the individual numbers in the report because the test wasn’t mandatory so not all students took it, the test was conducted under different circumstances last school year than in previous years, and COVID-19 impacted students in a wide range of ways.

But, the department is using information from the report as part of their overall assessment of how students did last year.

Spearman explained older students saw less of a gap between last year’s number of students meeting or exceeding expectations and prior years than younger students. However, she is worried another school year disrupted by COVID-19 could set students even further behind their grade level.

The state’s top educator has been continuously speaking out against a temporary state law limiting school district’s ability to mandate masks and encouraging people to get vaccinated. She says because of COVID precautions, particularly when masking isn’t mandated, students and teachers may be frequently forced to quarantine at home when there is a possible exposure. This not only puts students’ and teachers’ health at risk but removes the opportunity for students to learn face-to-face from their teacher. Spearman said the pandemic has made it clear to her that most students learn best when studying in person.

“This is not what we wanted. We wanted and needed a normal school year,” she said. “It saddens me. I am almost at the point of anger... that we are almost at the point that schools have to be all virtual.”

However, while the Department of Education says these scores may not increase significantly in just one school year, Spearman is hopeful they are heading in the right direction in the long run.

“We have been very, very carefully working with our districts, working in-house at the Department of Education to streamline our standards to prioritize the things that really need to be taught at each grade accelerate the learning of our students,” she said.

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