Jeff's Corner


South Carolina's Achievement Gap:

Do we really believe that all children can learn?

Jeffrey M. Priest, Ph.D.

Associate Director, South Carolina Statewide Systemic Initiative

January 1, 2000 marked the beginning of the new millennium (or at least the beginning of a new century). It also marked my twelfth anniversary as an educator in South Carolina. As I reflect back on all that has happened in science and mathematics education in South Carolina during the past 12 years and look forward to the future, I am both pleased and dismayed at our progress, and hopeful, yet daunted, by our future.

Although our achievement scores don't reflect our progress yet, South Carolina has made great strides in overhauling its education system. The change started with the Education Improvement Act passed under then Governor Dick Riley and continues today with the Education Accountability Act of 1998 (EAA). Whereas South Carolina was once considered inept as far as education was concerned, it is now recognized as one of the leaders in education reform. In early December 1999, Education Weekly issued the "Quality Counts 2000" the fourth national report card which stated that in four short years, South Carolina has gone from a "D" education system, to a "B" education system.

The reason for this improvement is that South Carolina has put into place key elements for education reform. For the first time, South Carolina has aligned policy, curriculum, and assessment so that all three are working in conjunction with one another instead of against one another. Although the frameworks have been in place for a number of years, the EAA mandates that all schools use a standards-based curriculum. It also mandates that students be assessed in a manner consistent with the academic achievement standards. Finally, the EAA holds schools accountable for student achievement. Another key factor to South Carolina's success is the South Carolina Statewide Systemic Initiative (SC SSI). The SC SSI provides an infrastructure to help schools meet the requirements of the Education Accountability Act. Each of the SC SSI's programs was designed specifically to help schools meet the rigorous challenges set forth by the EAA.

The main edict of the EAA is to mandate high standards for all children. The EAA also mandates all children at a school must succeed in order for a school to be considered a success. No one group of students should be left behind. To ensure this, the EAA mandates each school to prepare and submit to the public a report card. This report card is to include disaggregated test scores. This means test scores will be reported by ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status. There will be no hiding behind aggregated data.

In the spring of 1999, children in grades three through eight took the Palmetto Academic Challenge Test in English/language arts and mathematics. For the first time South Carolina assessed students in a manner consistent with the way students were taught (at least in theory were taught). Although the BSAP test scores had been slowly increasing over the past twelve years, the PACT was a different animal. And what an animal it was!

Approximately 64% of all students in grades three through eight met standard in English/language arts, while approximately 53% of all students met standard in mathematics. Although on the surface this doesn't seem too bad, however when we disaggregate the scores, the true nature of the beast is revealed. Approximately 63% of African American males scored below basic in English/language arts and 69% of African American males scored below basic in mathematics! (Although I report these figures in terms of ethnicity, the real determinant is socioeconomic status.)

If this isn't eye opening, I don't know what is! How could we as a state come so far with its reform efforts, yet have such a wide achievement gap? Don't we as educators espouse the mantra "All Students Can Learn"? I know in the vision statement for the South Carolina Statewide Systemic Initiative we state that all students must be provided with the best standards-based education possible and that all students can learn. It does not state that only those students from the middle and upper class be provided the best education possible!

Unfortunately the test data is not the only piece of evidence that indicates that not all educators believe all students can learn. If you look at the course taking trends of high school students, those students from middle and upper socioeconomic status tend to take the more rigorous courses that make them more competitive once they leave the system.

You might ask the question then, how could we have such a large gap when we have done so many things right? How could we have gone from a "D" to a "B" with such a large gap? After all, wasn't it I who mentioned earlier that we have put into place the key elements for success (aligning policy, curriculum and assessment)! Does this mean our reform efforts have gone for naught?!

Of course not! I truly believe South Carolina has put into place the framework for success. After all, if the EAA hadn't mandated that all data be disaggregated, the achievement gap would be relegated to the back burner. You have to acknowledge a problem before you can address it.

Is there a magic bullet out there that will narrow our achievement gap? Of course not! What it is going to take is everyone rolling up their sleeves and taking a long, honest look at ourselves and making the necessary changes to ensure that we continue to change the system. That means we might have to make changes that will make us feel a little uncomfortable. Some changes are going to be easier to make than others. However, we will need to change if indeed we are to have an impact on our system.


Below (in no particular order) are some ideas that I believe will help narrow the gap.


1. During the next adoption cycle in mathematics and science (and language arts), lets make sure that we adopt the very best materials possible that support our standards. This means the materials must be standards based, and must be supported by research. This might mean moving away from the traditional texts and moving more towards an activity based curriculum.If this is done, we must make sure that schools are provided the adequate funds to purchase the necessary materials to support such a standards based program. In addition, we must ensure there is a professional development plan in place to support the implementation of the new curricula, no matter what it is. Whatever material is adopted, we must be sure that it is free of any gender, ethnic or socioeconomic bias.

2. Schools must use data to drive their decision-making. Although schools have had access to a myriad of data, most have not used this data to its fullest potential. Administrators and teachers must be trained on how to use the data to help them make decisions that will benefit their entire student body. Too often reams of data are provided and filed away because no one has taken the time to sift through the data to find meaningful information, or more likely, few people feel adequately trained to use the data appropriately.

3. More time for professional development for teachers and administrators must be provided and this time must be compensated for. In this years proposed budget submitted by the Governor, teacher salary will be increased by 5.35%. Built into this is three additional workdays to be used for professional development. Although I applaud this initiative, it doesn't go far enough. Although I may not be popular for saying so, I believe the teacher contract needs to be extended by a minimum of 15 days (20 days preferable). Obviously the contract extension would be compensated accordingly. These days would be used for professional development. The 15 days would allow teachers to take graduate courses or any other appropriate professional development activities. If we expect teachers to update their certification regularly, we need to provide them time and compensate them accordingly as they would be in business and industry.

4. Teachers must be provided time on a regular basis to meet not only with grade level teachers, but with teachers of other grades. Time to meet is probably the number one response I get when I talk to teachers and principals about what they wish they could do more of. To do this I propose that schools add 45 minutes each day for teachers to meet. Three days a week grade level teachers would meet to discuss their curriculum, look over student work, etc. The other two days teachers would meet across all grade levels. I would propose that teachers do this first thing in the morning. This might mean schools having to start 45 minutes later or coming up with some other alternative schedule.

5. Teachers teaching at the middle school need to be subject certified. This year the Governor's Middle School Task Force is recommending middle school certification. When we look at middle school test scores, we see a drastic decline in student achievement. Although there are probably a number of reasons for this decline (raging hormones being one), I believe teachers who are certified to teach in their subject area would better serve students. We have way to many middle school teachers who are not qualified to teach math or science at the middle school level. We need to put a policy in place in which subject certification is required of all middle school teachers. There should be a time deadline in place by which current middle school teachers must become certified in a subject area or else risk losing their position at the middle school.

6. All students must take laboratory courses in biology, chemistry, and physics in the sciences and algebra 1, algebra 2, geometry and statistics (or calculus in place of statistics) as a minimum in mathematics before they graduate from high school. The state of South Carolina made great strides when they mandated 3 years of science and 4 years of mathematics. However, I believe we must go further. Research has indicated that students who take through geometry and take physics and chemistry have more doors open for them when they graduate from high schools than students who do not take these courses.


Although we have done away with the general education tract, we still have a system in place that in reality restricts student choices once they graduate from high school. We need to guarantee that no matter what route students take in high school, when they successfully complete their high school program, they can map their own route to the future. Unfortunately, our system is still one in which the system predetermines a students future.

Finally, let me restate what I alluded to earlier. The most important factor impacting the achievement gap in South Carolina is teacher expectations. Although every educator in the state of South Carolina publicly states that all children can learn, in private I am convinced that not all educators truly believe this. PACT score data, SAT score data, AP course data and course taking trends all support this. Until we stop talking the talk and start walking the walk, we have a long, uphill battle.

Although the past 12 years have been rewarding, I recognize we still have a long way to go. I also recognize the fact that we can't do it alone. I hope all educators and education associations will join the South Carolina Statewide Systemic Initiative in rededicating itself to challenging and changing the education system so that we can one day say that South Carolina provides an equitable education for all children and that all educators in South Carolina truly believe that all children can learn.


March 2000 Newsletter Index

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Copyright © 2000 by the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.


Ruth Patrick Science Education Center
Center of Excellence in Educational Technology
University of South Carolina Aiken
471 University Parkway
Aiken, SC 29801