[original submission posted below before edits]
Education reform in South Carolina suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: New standards and new tests, but the outcomes remain disappointing.
Now, recently released ACT scores serve as the newest reason to panic. As reported in The State: “The latest scores from the ACT college entrance exam suggest that many of this year’s high school graduates aren’t ready for college-level course work.”
SC’s data are troubling: 14% of test-takers not ready for college and the race gap even more alarming (2% of black students met standard on the four sections of the ACT).
SC also appears to compare poorly to the other 20 states requiring all students to take the ACT—notably Tennessee has a similar poverty rate as SC but a higher average ACT score.
However, I urge caution about interpreting ACT scores from one year of data since SC has recently adopted Common Core standards and tests, dropped Common Core, adopted yet new standards, and then chosen the ACT for annual testing.
Thus, my concerns about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores include the following:
- Scores are depressed due to 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.
- One year of data when a new test is adopted is inadequate for drawing hard conclusions.
ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, test scores in the U.S. (notably our residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the 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 labels 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, 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, I am not trivializing SC’s ACT scores—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I must stress we did not need more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity cheats 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 inability of education reformers to do something different beyond accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses problems directly and all of which increases those problems.
Hand wringing over results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation. Therefore, admitting that weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. Instead we need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.
While problematic, recent research suggests that even when 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 confront a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike raising test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.
Instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impact negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need to erase food, health, and work insecurity, and we need to addresses equity of opportunity (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 tests.
No one needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students. Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity those test scores represent?