South Carolina Changes Scale, Shocked at Same Outcomes

Education reform in South Carolina—just like the rest of the U.S.—suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: SC has changed the standards and high-stakes tests during thirty years of accountability about seven times, but the outcomes continue to be disappointing.

This proves that even in the South we are immune to our own cleverness: You can weigh a pig, but it won’t make the pig fatter.

The education reform version of that is that you can keep changing the tests, but the scores are going to tell you the same thing.

Deanna Pan, as a consequence, offers this “sky is falling” of the moment about public schools in SC, Only 14 percent of S.C. graduates are ready for college, according to ACT [1]:

Results on the ACT college entrance exam show recent South Carolina high school graduates are woefully unprepared for college, despite their ambitions for postsecondary education.

Only 14 percent of 51,000 students tested statewide who graduated this year met the ACT’s “college readiness” benchmarks in all four of the exam’s subject areas — English, math, science and reading — yet 83 percent of test takers indicated they wanted to go on to college.

Even more staggering, just 2 percent of black students met the ACT’s benchmarks in all four sub-tests, compared with 9 percent of Latinos, 21 percent of whites and 33 percent of Asians.

After I talked with Pan by phone for 15-20 minutes, here is what made it to her article:

Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, said these results should be “taken with a grain of salt.” Without multiple years of testing data to compare with this year’s batch of scores, he said it’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions, particularly about the performance of the state’s black students who disproportionately attend high-poverty schools with less access to advanced curriculum and veteran teachers.

“All standardized testing is still extremely biased by race, social class and gender,” Thomas said. “(These results) are more of a reflection of systemic problems, not with students.”

Just for clarities sake—since several charter school advocates took to Twitter to attack me by misrepresenting the above in order to promote charter schools, which annually prove to be no better than traditional public schools in SC—my caution focuses on interpreting ACT scores from one year of data after SC has over the past few years adopted Common Core and the related tests, dropped Common Core, renamed what are essentially Common Core standards to look as if we have our own state standards, and then adopted ACT as our annual testing.

In other words, my concern about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores includes the following:

  • The data are certainly depressed due to the curricular/standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
  • ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
  • Virtually all shifts to new high-states standardized tests necessarily begin with a drop in scores; and thus, my point about the need to wait for several years of data.

However, my key point of emphasis, regretfully, during my interview with Pan was omitted: The ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, tests scores in the U.S. (notably our demoralizing residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the single most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.

To persist with misnomers such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.

SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability mandates, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).

Ultimately, then, I am not trivializing that these current ACT scores paint a grim picture about SC education—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I am emphasizing that we did not need yet more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity is cheating those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.

The real failure in education reform lies in the ideology of the education reformers, including those committed to accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses the root causes directly and all of which increase the actual problems.

As Paul Gorski explains:

It also is why as a teacher educator I attend to ideology. No set of curricular or pedagogical strategies can turn a classroom led by a teacher with a deficit view of families experiencing poverty into an equitable learning space for those families (Gorski 2013; Robinson 2007)….

Just as importantly, what realities does deficit ideology obscure and to what are we not responding when we respond through deficit ideology? Can we expect to eradicate outcome disparities most closely related to the barriers and challenges experienced by people experiencing poverty by ignoring those barriers and challenges – the symptoms of economic injustice?

The lamented results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation, but the callous responses by some who say poverty is an excuse are predictable and remain inexcusable.

The implication of weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. That implication is about the need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.

While problematic, recent research suggests that even when some schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must address a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.

In short, instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impacts negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need social reform that erases food, health, and work insecurity, and we need education reform that addresses equity of opportunity (for vulnerable students that includes access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and ever-new tests.

If anyone needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students, that is news and cringe worthy.

Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity?


[1] Let’s take a glance at what may be meant by taking this data with a grain of salt.

First, while poverty correlates strongly with standardized test scores, no one claims it is a perfect correlation. If you want to suggest that Tennessee calls into question SC’s low scores, you have to acknowledge that Nevada makes SC scores look quite differently. So only highlighting the TN/SC comparison is the discredited practice of cherry-picking (don’t trust people who cherry pick).

Next, among these 20 states we have no clarification on (1) how many years has the state been using this ACT test (the more years, the higher the scores, typically [reliability]), and (2) how well does this test correlate with what teachers have taught the students over 10-11 years of schooling [validity] (most of which could not have been correlated with this test).

Therefore, ACT test scores tell us about socioeconomic status, race, gender, and test validity/reliability—all of which are not about student learning, teacher quality, or school quality.

Ultimately, however, low ACT scores in SC this year are well within the historical data from every single different standardized test we have ever implemented. That is the lesson—one that I detail above we have no urge to address.

Average composite scores by states requiring ACT (see page 14 here) || Poverty Rank/Percentage

Minnesota 21.1 || 7/ 11.4%

Illinois 20.8  || 24/14.3%

[National Composite Score 20.8]

Colorado 20.6  ||  13/12.1%

Wisconsin 20.5  ||  18/13.2%

Michigan 20.3  || 33/16.2%

Montana 20.3  ||  27/15.2%

North Dakota 20.3  || 5/11.1%

Missouri 20.2  || 30/15.5%

Utah 20.2  12/11.8%

Arkansas 20.2  || 46/18.7%

Kentucky 20.0  || 47/19%

Wyoming 20.0  || 3/10.6%

Tennessee 19.9 || 41/18.2%

Louisiana 19.5  || 49/19.9%

Alabama 19.1  || 48/19.2%

North Carolina 19.1  || 39/17.2%

Hawaii 18.7  ||  9/11.5%

South Carolina 18.5  || 40/17.9%

Mississippi 18.4  || 51/21.9%

Nevada 17.7  || 29/15.4%

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