Schools up but districts down in state's annual report card

The results from the state's annual school report card, released today, left educators scratching their heads.

While more individual schools locally and statewide are improving their overall performance, or "absolute rating," districts are faring worse.

For example, Horry County as a district had an "average" absolute rating and an "at-risk" growth rating, yet 23 schools in Horry County improved their absolute scores. Georgetown County also had more schools score an "excellent" rating and fewer schools scoring "below average," yet the district itself scored a "below average" absolute rating and an "at-risk" growth rating.

Absolute ratings represent how well a school is performing and look at indicators such as attendance, graduation rates and standardized test scores. Schools and districts are labeled as excellent, good, average or below average. In addition, schools and districts are rated on how well they improve overall from year to year. That is shown on the school's report card as a "growth rating."

Statewide, absolute ratings for school districts declined, with 29.4 percent rated average or higher compared with 44.7 percent last year, according to a statement released by the S.C. Department of Education.

The cause for the inconsistency between the district and individual school scores is due to changes in the way elementary and middle schools areevaluated. While the performance index was reduced for elementary and middle schools, it remained the same for high schools and districts, said officials with the S.C. Department of Education.

The S.C. Education Oversight Committee is working to recalibrate the system this year, said Executive Director Jo Anne Anderson. She said this year should be considered a baseline year, and it would be difficult to compare the 2008 ratings with the 2009 ratings.

Report card ratings normally are published in November, but the 2009 ratings were delayed due to the statewide process of changing from the replaced Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests, formerly used to rate elementary and middle schools, to the new Palmetto Assessment of State Standards. After scoring levels for the new PASS tests were set, the education committee had to revise the rating calculations for elementary and middle schools.

Even with a complicated scoring system, officials on the state and local level have noticed some student performance gains and gaps.

In Horry County, 12 schools had an "excellent" absolute rating, 14 schools had a "good" rating, 21 schools had an "average" rating, and one school had a "below average" rating.

While 23 schools improved their absolute score, three had ratings that went down: Loris and St. James high schools saw their absolute scores go from "good" to "average," while Myrtle Beach High School dropped two spots, from "excellent" to "average."

On all of the criteria factored into Myrtle Beach High's ratings, performance declined, said Dana Yow of education committee. She said the biggest decline was in average, end-of-course test performance, falling from 69.2 percent in 2008 to 61.0 percent in 2009.

Edward Boyd, head of community affairs for Horry County Schools, downplayed the high school results, saying the scoring for high schools and the district versus scoring for elementary and middle schools is like two different rating systems.

As for the district's "at-risk" growth rating, he said, "Any performance that decreases from the previous year is an automatic at-risk."

The Georgetown County School District had four schools with an "excellent" absolute rating, one school with a "good" rating, 11 schools with an "average" rating and two schools with a "below average" absolute rating.

"Georgetown County continues to note areas of growth, especially in instructional delivery and assessment, and advances in reading and writing instruction through 'balanced literacy.'" said Patti Hammel, executive director for student performance and federal programs with the district, in a statement.

"I would say to parents, all of our schools are excellent."

Hammel also talked about the trouble comparing last year's data with this year's results because of the new scoring system at the elementary and middle school level.

"An example would be that Waccamaw Elementary received an 'excellent' rating for its achievement and an 'at-risk' improvement rating, although no students had previously taken the test for comparison of a child-to-child match," Hammel said in the statement.

"Another example that is very notable is that all of the middle schools improved in the absolute ratings and in the improvement ratings, yet the district is reported to have not improved," she said.

This year was the first state report card year for Waccamaw Intermediate School, and the school was given an excellent absolute rating.

Principal Tim Carnahan said he was pleased with the results.

"I would say a lot of it has to do with our great teachers and that we have more instructional time [in core areas]," Carnahan said. "We have 120 minutes a day of language arts. How much does a middle school have? About 45 to 50 minutes."

The students at the intermediate school also have about 90 minutes of math a day, Carnahan said.

In addition, the school also has a balanced literacy program. Students are tested to determine their individual reading levels. Each classroom has books divided and categorized by reading level, so students can read books that are targeted toward their own needs.

The school also has a self-contained sixth grade, which reduces the time students spend in the hallways transferring from class to class and allows teachers to get to know their students, he said.

"We're not done yet because we had a 'good' growth rating, not an 'excellent' rating," Carnahan said. "I am excited about how we have done in our first year."

The S.C. Education Oversight Committee released its own review of the state report card data.

"A comparison of 2009 PASS performance in all tested subject areas among white students, African-American students, Hispanic students, students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, and pay-lunch students illustrates that statewide improvement will not occur unless these gaps are closed. ... The most significant gap observed is 23 percentage points, between white and African-American student performance in science," said a statement released by the education committee.

State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said economic stressors that affect parents may be trickling down to affect students and their performance in school.

"Social services are being cut back, and resources are being decreased," said Rex. "The impact of these economic factors on student achievement is hard to measure, but it is hard to believe it is not having an impact."

Rex said there was a need to improve student achievement as a whole.

"This is a sobering picture of where we are," Rex said.