Maybe not dead so much as completely different

Jim Foster over at the state Department of Education sent out this release, which is a tad more informative than Mr. Ryberg’s:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Senate gives key approval to bill that would
replace PACT, reform 1998 accountability law

COLUMBIA – The South Carolina Senate today gave unanimous
second-reading approval to legislation that would replace PACT while
making significant changes to South Carolina’s overall student
assessment and school accountability systems.

“Teachers and parents are clamoring for these changes, our students
need them and our state deserves them,” said State Superintendent of
Education Jim Rex.  “It’s really gratifying to see the Senate make
such a strong statement with its unanimous vote.”

After receiving a routine third reading, the Senate-amended version of
H.4662 will return to the House next week for its consideration.  If the
House declines to accept the changes made by the Senate, the bill would
head to a conference committee.

One key difference, Rex said, is that the Senate bill mandates a
replacement for PACT by spring 2009.  The House bill would replace PACT
in 2010.

“Everyone agrees that we need to replace PACT as quickly as possible
with a system that’s more useful to teachers and informative for
parents,” Rex said.  “I hope the House will see that we don’t need
another year of PACT before we start using something that works

Both versions of the legislation would make the first significant
changes to South Carolina’s Education Accountability Act since it was
approved by the General Assembly 10 years ago.  That law mandated annual
PACT testing for 380,000 students in grades 3-8 and the publishing of
annual school report cards.

H.4662 is based on recommendations from two statewide task forces
appointed by Rex last summer – one for testing and one for
accountability.  Those groups, which met numerous times over the late
summer and fall, included representatives from local districts and
schools, teacher and school administrator organizations, the South
Carolina School Boards Association, the General Assembly, the Education
Oversight Committee, the State Board of Education, business groups, and
colleges and universities.

The Senate version of the legislation would:
●    Eliminate PACT and replace it in 2009 with new end-of-year
accountability tests that feature “essay” exams in March and more
easily scored multiple-choice exams in May.  Schools would get final
results within a few weeks of the May tests, compared to late July with
●    Revise the content of annual school report cards to make it more
understandable and useful for parents, while simultaneously making
certain that any revisions are in full compliance with the federal No
Child Left Behind Act.
●    Support voluntary “formative” assessments in English
language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.  These tests
would provide teachers with immediate feedback on individual students’
strengths and weaknesses and allow them to customize instruction based
on those needs.
●    Eliminate burdensome paperwork requirements for teachers.
●    Bring South Carolina’s student performance targets into
alignment with other states.
●    Review the state’s school accountability system every five
years to be certain that it’s working efficiently and effectively.

Trouble is, and contrary to wildly popular belief, the PACT was never intended to be "useful to teachers and informative for parents." There are other devices for doing those things. The purpose of PACT was to enable policy makers to determine whether schools and districts were succeeding at teaching the standards that were created to make education in South Carolina more useful in the sense of producing an educated populace.

It was the end result of the Accountability Act. The idea was to determine what kids should be learning (the standards, which are some of the highest in the country), and then have a device to let the lawmakers who passed the Accountability Act see whether the schools and districts were getting the job done in the aggregate.

It was the creation of business leaders who said graduates didn’t have the skills needed in the workplace, and conservative Republicans whose attitude toward education was that they didn’t want to appropriate all that money for it without some objective measurement of whether goals were being met.

Anyway, I thought somebody who actually remembers what this was all about should mention that. So I did.

11 thoughts on “Maybe not dead so much as completely different

  1. Randy E

    Education has as its foundation an invalid system of measurement, grades. We have all taken classes in which we made an “A” but didn’t learn anything. Contrarily, we’ve also had that demanding teacher who pushed us to learn even though we only made a “C.”
    A grade in a class is often determined partially or largely by effort; completing homework, simple projects, and even extra credit. Even the tests may measure little more than rote memorization.
    Student receive a passing grade if they make a 69.5. What does such a grade represent? Students can make a 40 in a class without even trying. A 69.5 indicates they earned 29.5 of the remaining 60 points – not quite half. In effect, a student learns maybe half the content in a class and passes. Factor in extra credit and this drops to less than half.
    For many students, parents, and even educators this bare bones passing average is considered a success. The superintendent candidate Floyd berated the system for such a poor graduation rate. A diploma can be and often is awarded to students with an abundance of 69.5 averages in their course work. Increasing this outcome would have met Floyd’s criteria of a higher passing rate.
    Currently, education is more about making the grade in lieu of pure learning. If a student makes the grade he or she wants (D- for some, A for others) the student and the parent is happy so the administrator is happy (less problems) and the teacher is perceived in a positive light. This is true regardless of actual learning.
    PACT, NCLB, the new panacea to be unveiled in 2009 (safe assumption) do not address this. School choice does not address this (private schools would also be measured by these standardized tests everyone despises). Until we shift our focus to what grades are supposed to measure, learning, from the grades themselves, we will have this same debate 10 years from now.

  2. Willie Sutton

    Follow the money. The replacement for PACT will surely be provided by someone with political connections/contributions to Jim Rex.

  3. penultimo mcfarland

    Eventually, the new bricks and parking lots will pass all the tests and education will feel good for everybody without conveying enough information to use up the memory of a Commodore 64.

  4. Mike Cakora

    So what’s to happen in the interim? I’m no big fan of the PACT, but for some programmatic reasons, some of which can be readily fixed. I’m no conspiracy guy, but wonder if Rex may be up to something to benefit a portion of his constituency.
    So with dander raised I’ve had my say. I think it’s a commie plot. (In my conservative non-partisan world, perfect as it may be, Democrat = commie. That’s a recent equation, but true.)

  5. Mike Cakora

    Willie –
    Several years ago The State published an opinion column of mine wherein I complained about the PACT and student performance assessment in general. Later, while Googling around, I found that my column was discussed on an educators’ listserve and roundly dismissed with the assertion that I or my employer sold testing software. We don’t, and I think that Rex is not out to transfer state funds to a crony. I do think that he may be trying to shield the state’s educators from scrutiny to solidify his chances for reelection, also an odious act. In other words, he needs to start stocking his war chest and garnering votes.
    Whatever the case, I do not see his motives as beneficial to education. PACT has its problems, I’ve been a critic, but any transition has to be planned carefully so as to preserve the data and maintain the incentives to improve.

  6. Randy E

    “He’s stocking his war chest.” – Cak
    He beat a well funded, highly organized, Sanford endorsed candidate who had a 1 year campaigning head start during an election in which all other state offices were carried by the GOP. He certainly will not face the level of competition the next time.
    Cak cites his previous opposition to the PACT as substantive despite what educators thought. Then he dismisses Rex’s opposition to the same PACT as some nefarious plot.
    The odious act here is the dissemination of right wing propaganda.

  7. Mike Cakora

    Randy – My previous opposition was to the expense of creating and maintaining a test instead of buying it off the shelf and to the length of time it takes to get results back because of the time required to grade the written portion. I am behind an assessment tool as required by the state and federal NCLB.
    Now it looks like we’ll have no assessment tool, and that means no report cards for schools. How are parents to gauge the performance of the schools their kids attend?

  8. Randy E

    Cak, you cite Massachusetts in your editorial as an example of academic success we should emulate because they created a special office for a specific test? That’s the source of their achievement?
    Mass is at the zenith of American education because they have a long freakin history of making education a top priority. In the 1600s they were passing laws on education and mandated education by the mid 1800s. It was more than 100 years later that SC reached that point. In an agrarian and textile based economy, education was hardly the same priority. DuBois’ was getting a Harvard education at the turn of the century and 60 years later we had to have a law to create equal schools for black students.
    Using your cause and effect analysis, we should elect a black governor so we’d boost our scores. After all, that’s what Massachusetts did.

  9. penultimo mcfarland

    “He beat a well funded, highly organized, Sanford endorsed candidate who had a 1 year campaigning head start during an election in which all other state offices were carried by the GOP.”
    And since then, Jim Rex has benefited education is South Carolina not one iota.
    He’s taken Tenenbaum back a notch, and she was way behind the curve at the start.
    And neither one of them has yet to touch a fastball.

  10. Randy E

    And since then, Jim Rex has benefited education is South Carolina not one iota. – mcfarland
    Based on what, your personal observation or can you justify that statement?

  11. Mike Cakora

    Randy -.
    WTF? (Why, that’s fantastic!)
    Now I fully understand that you’re not serious, because it’s not the hue of the current governor’s skin, but the attitude of accountability that his predecessors possessed that’s responsible tor the stellar success of Massachusetts’s education program. For the state to excel in 2006 and 2007, something in earlier years must have been responsible, no? Does it not take a bit of time to turn education around, at least a couple of years? I omitted / overlooked the vital contribution of Paul Cellucci, the guy who put teeth into the commonwealth’s education law.

    Cellucci was also successful in maintaining the state’s high education standards for its public schools. Those standards, which required students to pass exams in basic Math and English to receive a high school diploma, were a major piece of the Education Reform Act of 1993 and were phased in over time. The teachers unions wanted to weaken the standards just as they were about to take effect, but Cellucci worked with Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran and Senate President Thomas Birmingham, both Democrats, to hold the line on this issue. The standards have remained in effect and in its June 4, 2007 report card on “No Child Left Behind,” Time Magazine found that Massachusetts students score the best on the federal tests.

    The point is not that Massachusetts “created a special office for a specific test”, but that they created an office to achieve, through assistance in attaining standards, standards set by existing law.
    In an engineering sense, the process is simple: analyze, design, develop, conduct, and evaluate. Other readers here are familiar with that simplistic process, one that’s applied to all sorts of challenges. The difficulty in education and certain other disciplines is the complexity of the problem. It’s trivial for putting a sidewalk, but more difficult for complex systems, and education is the one that’s probably the hardest.
    Why? Controlling all variables has proved impossible. Even if one does have excellent curriculum standards (clearly stated objectives for each grade level, and SC does), sets of lesson plans / teaching strategies based on those standards (SC does not: what’s available is out-of-sync / out-of-date with current standards, is not comprehensive, and is not supported by textbooks, forcing teachers to include material from the next year’s textbook into the current year’s instruction to cover standards), and a test to measure the curriculum’s attainment of the objectives, administrators don’t create the environment for success.
    From my observations, there are two major failings in Richland District One (RDO). The first is the district’s move to block scheduling where 90-minute classes end up covering less material over the school year. I’ve written earlier about that abomination. (BTW, I do appreciate the effort you make in following the links I embed).
    The second is fuzzier and relates to discipline, expectations, and entitlement. I’ll be quite blunt in writing that administrators, primarily the second tier, the assistant principals, in many RDO schools exhibit poor judgment and send a completely wrong message to the students. While often playing favorites. they not only overlook or excuse rowdy behavior, sexual harassment, minor vandalism, and the like, some even engage in flirting and suggestive repartee with their charges. When a middle-school teacher makes a referral, administrators seem conditioned to excuse anything that does not involve a loaded handgun. Sadly, I don’t think that I’m exaggerating.
    Apart from that are other environmental factors over which administrators have no control. As the oldest of nine kids who grew up in good times and bad, I hate to waste things, especially food. RDO has load of kids who qualify for free lunch and breakfast, and many arrive in the morning desiring only a drink from the school cafeteria to start their day. The “free-breakfast rules” are that a drink must be accompanied by a nutritious breakfast, so the kids get the drink along with the full breakfast, then throw the latter into the trash.
    I think that that’s another reason why I’m a non-compassionate conservative… Sure, there are kids who need the nutrition provided, but how many get it at what cost?
    I will add to my blog what I learned through a private communication today: Superintendent Rex and crew may have selected another test series — one used in other states — that they are ready to implement in SC next year. I remain wary.
    Finally, I do make an effort to be fair and really do expect civil exchanges. While I am conservative, I am also a Marxist of the Groucho variety and am not and have never been a member of any political party. You can think of me as an ideologue, not a party hack.

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