Wren Elementary School in Anderson 1, River Springs Elementary in Lexington-Richland District 5, and Chukker Creek Elementary in Aiken County are not close geographically, but they have some important things in common.
They're among the most decorated schools in South Carolina, taking home the Palmetto Gold award in all but a couple of the past eight years. Well over 90 percent of their students score at or above grade level on state assessments, and parent satisfaction is consistently high. Chukker Creek is a National Blue Ribbon school, a Dick and Tunky Riley School Improvement Award winner, and a Carolina First Palmetto's Finest school.
They are exemplary schools by any measure, ranked as "excellent" on state report cards every year except the last two. The fact that they dropped from excellent to good highlights a flaw in South Carolina's accountability system that the Education Oversight Committee has rectified by revising our school grading system for the first time in more than a decade.
The accountability initiatives of the past 10 years - South Carolina's own Education Accountability Act, a landmark law passed in 1998, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act approved in 2001 - have taught us some important lessons about assessing school quality, measuring progress, and encouraging improvement.
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We have learned that raising the bar for school performance relentlessly and dramatically every year gives a distorted picture of school quality. Schools that were excellent to start with have had to improve by leaps and bounds to maintain their rating: One year's A is the next year's B. Our most challenged schools have had the discouraging job of improving, but never enough, chasing a target that constantly moves beyond their reach.
We have learned that rapidly rising expectations mask progress. Nine years ago, when the EAA was implemented, 7 percent of South Carolina's elementary and middle schools were designated as unsatisfactory (the lowest category), and 14 percent were designated as excellent. If the same requirements were in place today, 3 percent of schools would be judged unsatisfactory and 35 percent as excellent, clear evidence of good progress. Yet after years of continuously raising the bar by 2008, 16 percent of schools were ranked unsatisfactory and only 4 percent - a shocking 36 of 885 schools - would rank as excellent.
We have discovered that achievement targets motivate school improvement only when they are realistically achievable. Student achievement requirements were not adjusted in the wake of Act 388, which handicapped schools by substantially reducing local resources. They rose steadily in recent years even as economic recession forced teacher layoffs, class size increases and elimination of academic programs. Accountability is not meaningful if our requirements ignore the real-life circumstances that affect school and student achievement.
Finally, we have realized that constantly expanding the pool of schools labeled as unsatisfactory or at-risk, no matter how well those schools are improving, defeats all the purposes of accountability. Report card ratings that fail to reward progress worsen the challenges these schools face, undermining morale, making it harder to attract good teachers and leaders and inhibiting business investment in their communities. It also dilutes the already limited resources available to help schools in greatest need of improvement.
South Carolina, a national leader in establishing school accountability, is now leading the way in incorporating what we've learned to make our system stronger. In 2014, when 100 percent of students in every school in the nation are required to earn the equivalent of a B in every course, at every grade level, federal accountability through No Child Left Behind will be officially meaningless.
South Carolina's accountability system won't be. This year's changes will help ensure that exemplary schools are recognized as excellent, that improving schools are not labeled unfairly as failing, and that achievement targets are rigorous but realistic. They move us closer to our original purposes, the only useful goals of accountability: accurately describing school quality, acknowledging and encouraging progress and focusing resources on the schools that most need our help.
Hamm is chief information officer of Richland School District Two. Elmore is communications director of the S.C. School Boards Association.