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‘That should send alarm bells off’: State test scores show achievement gaps growing between SC students

Statewide testing shows South Carolina students who have fallen behind the most during the...
Statewide testing shows South Carolina students who have fallen behind the most during the pandemic are the ones who can least afford to do so.(Live 5)
Published: Sep. 20, 2021 at 7:38 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 20, 2021 at 8:10 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Statewide testing shows South Carolina students who have fallen behind the most during the pandemic are the ones who can least afford to do so.

Test scores from SC READY, the annual test for students in third through eighth grade, show the percentage of all South Carolina students who meet or exceed where they should be for their grade level in language arts fell about 2.9%, from 45.4% in 2019 to 42.6% in 2021. Students were not tested in 2020.

But language arts scores for African-American students fell even more, about 4.3%, from 26.4% in 2019 to 22.1% in 2021, the largest percentage drop of any student group in that subject when broken down by race or ethnicity.

Language arts scores for Hispanic students decreased about 4%, from 36.6% in 2019 to 32.6% in 2021.

That learning loss was even more significant in math.

The number of all students at or above their grade level fell about 7.9% from 2019 to 2021, decreasing from 45.1% to 37.2%, while that number fell about 9.9% for African-American students, from 25.2% to 15.3% of students testing at least at their grade level. Hispanic students experienced a similar drop of 9.6%, from 38.8% at their grade level or higher to 29.2%.

Before the pandemic, African-American and Hispanic students’ test scores in math and language arts trailed the overall student numbers more than results from students in other groups.

South Carolina Education Oversight Committee Executive Director Matthew Ferguson, who presented the data to state lawmakers at a joint meeting of the Academic Standards & Assessments and the Public Awareness subcommittees on Monday, said those differences in learning loss are concerning.

“Our analysis last year predicted that the achievement gaps would not widen, but when we look at the results from the 2021 summit of results, that those achievement gaps did, in fact, widen, and I think that that should send alarm bells off across South Carolina,” Ferguson said. “And we need a really concerted effort to look at why and what can be done about that and to make data-informed decisions moving forward.”

But in order to determine what schools should do to make up for these losses, the Education Oversight Committee needs to figure out if the data it has from 2021 is representative of South Carolina’s students.

About 50,000 fewer students took the SC READY assessment in 2021 compared to 2019, and Ferguson said in some groups, including students living in poverty and African-American students, a smaller percentage of students tested last year than in previous years.

While testing was still required in 2021, schools were not held responsible if fewer than 95% of their students took the assessment, as they have been in the past.

“So we need to do a little more work in seeing what that make up of students looks like,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said the committee will analyze and investigate these results further to develop more nuanced recommendations for how schools and districts can target these learning losses.

“We need to really be focused on how to move forward from here because I think, unfortunately, COVID is going to be the new normal in which we live, but we can’t normalize poor performance results, and this has to be our floor, and we have to show growth this year,” Ferguson said. “And when we’re having this conversation next year, we need to see improvement.”

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