COLUMBIA, S.C. — As anticipated, South Carolina student assessment scores and college and career readiness ratings have taken a dive since the start of the pandemic.
The state Department of Education Wednesday released its annual school report card data, which showed drops in the percentage of students who met or exceeded expectations on end-of-year assessments in nearly all subject areas compared to 2019, the last time summative assessments were given.
State Superintendent Molly Spearman said the results were very concerning, but not surprising and should be viewed in the context of the considerable disruption COVID-19 has caused students and teachers over the past 18 months.
"I think the question here is not so focused on these results, but what are we going to do about them?" Spearman said Tuesday on a call with reporters.
The state schools chief said her office has been working closely with districts to streamline standards and ensure teachers prioritize concepts deemed essential at each grade level to help accelerate student learning.
It will take time to get students back up to speed, Spearman said, but it can be done.
"It's going to take more than one year to recover from these new circumstances," she said. "We'll be working very, very focused to make sure that our children and our students have the resources, and our teachers have the resources that they need to be successful."
Education officials used federal coronavirus aid to buy a learning management system that will provide teachers access to higher quality learning materials than they've had in the past and are hopeful about the potential educational impact on South Carolina's students.
"Those are things that we had wanted to purchase for years and not had the funding," Spearman said. "We're very, very excited about our state taking a giant leap forward in the ability to connect teachers and for them to offer high quality lesson plans and resources."
HOW DID STUDENTS PERFORM?
Younger students, who start testing in third grade, generally were more impacted than older students, and math scores generally saw steeper declines than English scores, education officials said.
High-achieving high school students continued to excel in spite of the circumstances, while mediocre or below-average students didn't adapt as well and generally saw their scores drop, Spearman said.
Students from underserved areas suffered the most, Deputy Superintendent for College and Career Readiness David Mathis said.
While there are obvious limitations to the test results, given that some students didn't miss a single day of face-to-face instruction last year and others never entered the classroom, they are still instructive as the state attempts to get students academically on track.
"We look at these results to see where the gaps are," Spearman said. "It helps us focus in on the particular grade levels, the particular districts and schools where additional resources need to be."
The Department of Education plans to analyze the assessment data further to determine what impact virtual learning had on student achievement, but at this point doesn't have definitive answers.
"Anecdotally," Spearman said, "teachers, principals have told us, you know, we had to get our kids back."
The state has been auditing the instruction materials of schools where 30% or more of students tested below grade level in language arts and helping those schools purchase or develop stronger curricula and providing their teachers professional development opportunities, she said.
"This information really is for us to offer our support," Spearman said of the school assessment data. "And doing it in a very supportive manner, not in a punitive manner."
For that reason, the Department of Education did not assign schools ratings based on their test scores, graduation rates and other metrics, and will not use this year's data to designate schools as in need of improvement, a tag that comes with interventions and can result in state takeover.
Among the lone bright spots in this year's school report cards are South Carolina's increasing high school graduation rates.
The state's cumulative graduation rate increased slightly to 83.3%, the fourth straight year a higher percentage of high school students received diplomas, according to report card data.
Spearman said she believes the rising rates are a product of the emphasis the state placed on making sure high school seniors graduated this year, in spite of the trying circumstances.
"From the beginning, we said to our counselors: 'Do everything you can to make sure that our students are graduating,'" she said.
The schools chief also lauded the higher-than-expected testing participation rate, which she said was a big positive.
Despite parents having the option of opting their children out of end-of-year testing in the spring, nearly 88% of students statewide completed summative assessments, according to school report card data.
While a small number of districts reported very low percentages of student participation, many exceeded the state's 95% participation goal, Spearman said.
"Generally speaking, our percentage of students taking the assessment was stronger than I thought, which was a good thing," she said. "A very good thing."