SC state superintendent of education candidates outline visions to address learning deficits after release of new test scores

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Published: Sep. 7, 2022 at 8:40 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 8, 2022 at 10:22 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Test scores released this week show that South Carolina’s students are falling behind in certain areas.

Nearly half do not meet expectations in reading, writing and math.

Addressing students’ learning deficits is a top issue in the race to replace outgoing South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.

Republican Ellen Weaver, CEO of the Palmetto Promise Institute, and Lisa Ellis, founder of teacher organization SC for Ed, will face off in November.

Both campaigns said that these scores are not surprising, as South Carolina’s students faced achievement or opportunity gaps even prior to the pandemic.

Each candidate said that getting students back on track would be among her top priorities if elected.

“When over half of our children are not reading on grade level, it’s a crisis and it was a crisis before COVID,” Weaver said. “So we have a lot of work to do.”

According to her campaign, Ellis was not available for an interview Wednesday because she is still a full-time teacher.

Ellis’ deputy campaign manager Emily Mayer said the conversation around achievement gaps is “long overdue.”

The SC READY test, which is given to all students in grades three through eight, shows that prior to the pandemic, 45 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in math. Last year, only 39 percent met that mark.

“Teaching math virtually specifically was really, really difficult because it requires students to be able to show their work and to be able to explain their thinking,” Mayer said.

Results for the English Language Arts (ELA) examination have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. However, only 47 percent of those tested met or exceeded expectations on that assessment during the 2021-2022 school year.

Results from the SCPASS test, given to fourth and sixth graders, also show a drop in achievement in science. Only 46 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on that subject last year, compared to 49 percent during the 2018-2019 school year.

Several statewide initiatives have been implemented to address learning loss during the pandemic, including free online tutoring for students through the use of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.

Weaver said solving these problems starts with ensuring that the state has a strong curriculum and that students are taught the science of reading. She said teaching phonics is key as well.

“It comes back to high-quality curriculum, to supporting teachers in the classroom and to putting out a call to action to our communities, our faith community, our business community, our parents, retired teachers,” Weaver said.

If elected, Weaver said she’d hope to create what she calls an “army of volunteers,” including former teachers, to help mentor students.

The Ellis campaign said there should be a focus on hiring and retaining quality teachers, which could in turn lead to smaller class sizes and more one-on-one instruction.

Ellis would also hope to bring together a roundtable of teachers from across the state to hear their concerns, her campaign said.

Students undergo what Mayer characterized as an “exponential amount” of standardized testing, which she said can cause burnout for both students and teachers.

“[Lisa] wants to re-evaluate which of those standardized tests are necessary and which are a little bit of a surplus and are not really providing us any data or benefit to our students’ education,” she said.

Ellis would look to only examine tests that do not meet any state or federal requirements, the campaign said.

Mayer said students have already taken several mandated tests by April.

“If you know kids, you know that the more they’re forced to do something that they don’t want to do, the more they dig their feet in,” she said.

WIS asked Weaver and the Ellis campaign why each one believes she is best suited to address these learning deficits.

Weaver said the state needs a superintendent with a “big, bold vision.”

“We’ve got to expect more,” she said. “The status quo is not working, and unfortunately my opponent represents the status quo. She fought to keep classrooms closed, she fought to keep kids in masks and we’re reaping the results of those bad decisions even now in these test scores.”

Mayer touted Ellis’ 22 years of experience as a teacher.

“Over the last 22 years in education there has been such a spectrum of challenges faced head-on by her and her colleagues across the state,” Mayer said. “It’s time for somebody to come to the table that has had conversations in the background that’s ready to bring them to the foreground. She’s not somebody who has previously sat on the Education Oversight Committee. She’s not been somebody who has had the power and the leverage to make change across the state.”

Ellis could take what she is hearing from her colleagues and implement that in conversations that could benefit students statewide, Mayer said.

Early voting for the general election, which includes the race for superintendent of education, is scheduled to begin on October 24.

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