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Inside South Carolina’s Chronic SAT Problem




By Colleen MacMillan || South Carolina’s composite score on this year’s Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) dropped five points to 1431 – sixty-seven points behind the 2012 national average.

This gap continues growing despite huge funding increases … but why?

Schools in South Carolina have never been known for their strong academic performance – on standardized tests or in national rankings.  And they’re falling further behind the national average in numerous different measurements.  Yet despite this declining performance – and dropout rate that continues to climb – eighty-nine percent of the state’s SAT participants said they hope to earn a two-year degree or better in their post-secondary careers.

What’s wrong with that picture? According to S.C. Senator Tom Davis (R-Beaufort), the bottom line is simple:  South Carolina’s “dismal (education) record will continue so long as the legislature continues to do the bidding of the education ruling class and ignores teachers and parents.”

This year’s state budget appropriated an estimated $11,770 as the acceptable “per-child” price tag for one year’s worth of public education – a funding amount that’s supposed to remedy decades of poor performance.  Is this truly the magic number, though?  No – not unless fundamental changes are made in the system.  And as recent history shows, there is simply no legislative appetitive for fundamental change – or even incremental change.

“We are spending record amounts of money on public education – and South Carolina’s per-pupil funding is right at the national average. But the money we pay in goes disproportionately to administrators and bureaucrats, not the classroom,” Davis said.

In schools with high income levels, increased educational funding typically produces a marginally better return on investment (i.e. higher test averages). In low-income areas, it’s a different game entirely.

“You’ve got to go back and feed those kids, you’ve got to give them homework, you’ve got to do a whole lot more than just dump money into it and think that you’re going to get something back out of it,” said S.C. Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland).

While poverty alone is not a determining factor when it comes to academic performance, a disproportionate share of students in Title I schools score at the lower end of the testing spectrum.  A similar gap can be seen in average household incomes.  Also the percentage of parents with only a high school diploma is equal to those who have earned a bachelor’s degree – each representing thirty-two percent of the population.

Even the best South Carolina schools trail their counterparts regionally, though.  For example here is a look at the best South Carolina districts relative to demographically similar districts in neighboring states:

York 4 (Fort Mill, SC) – 73 percent took test, 1568 average score
Richland Lexington 5, SC – 83 percent took test, 1506 average score
Fulton, GA – 88 percent took test, 1580 average score
Chapel Hill-Carrboro, NC 90 percent took test, 1766 average score

Then there are schools like Springfield Elementary in Lexington School District 2.  Over fifty percent of its students are enrolled in a school-feeding program.  On the elementary scale, Springfield scored “extremely well” according to Kenny Bingham, the majority leader of the S.C. House of Representatives.

Springfield Elementary proves that, in Bingham’s words, “money is not a criteria to learn.”

Instead, he says “a child’s success has a lot to with school personnel and principle. The ability to engage the parents and get them excited about education is more of a determining factor than poverty. An engaged parent that sits and read with their child at night at those early ages makes the world difference for the outcome of that child.”

SC Classrooms: Money isn’t the issue.

“We can’t expect the teacher to overcome what transpires and takes place at home when they’re not at school,” Bingham added.  “If the child doesn’t have support from home, and if home doesn’t encourage the same behavior, the teacher is fighting an uphill battle.”

Data shows that the parents of low-income children are markedly less involved in their child’s education – which the S.C. First Steps to School Readiness program was designed to address.  Unfortunately, the agency’s plans for “coordinated, individualized interventions” continue to fall flat.

Jackie Hicks, president of the South Carolina Education Association and a 29-year veteran of the teaching force, says she has felt the impact of poor legislative decision making in her own classrooms.

“When we look at our dropping SAT scores, we also have to look at the resources that have been provided for our students–all of those things have been cut over the past several years in South Carolina,” Hicks says.

Is that statement accurate though?  Total and per pupil funding has gone up – even through the recession – and school districts continue to hoard nearly $1 billion in surplus revenues.

Money aside, Hicks currently advises teachers to “set high standards and expectations for their students.”  She also emphasizes the need for teachers to develop strong relationships with parents and guardians.

Another concerning figure is the 3.4 average grade point average of South Carolina SAT test takers—above the 3.3 national average.  This clearly distorted measurement – compared alongside another year of falling SAT scores – is the result of legislation that lowered evaluation standards.

Many students’ inflated GPAs lead them to believe they’re making better academic progress than they really are.

Pouring money into the public system has only perpetuated the downward spiral.  And costly public “accountability” programs also haven’t worked.  With each new wasted tax dollar, state government tightens its asphyxiating grip on education.

If the government insists on intervening in the marketplace, shouldn’t it be doing so on behalf of children and parents – not against them? But perhaps that contradiction hits too close to home for the many South Carolina politicians insistent on perpetuating the paradox that is our modern government system.

After all, it’s all about the money, baby!

And so the battle continues …

Colleen MacMillan is a reporter/ columnist for FITSNews. Reach her at [email protected].

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