- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina students would take fewer end-of-year tests in science and social studies under recommendations adopted Tuesday by the state’s Education Oversight Committee.

The governing board of the agency that oversees student testing voted 8-5 to reduce state-mandated testing in the subjects. If the Legislature approves, standardized testing would alternate between the subjects in fourth through eighth grades.

Supporters praise the move as cutting back on testing overload that takes students away from learning.

But opponents fear learning in the subjects will suffer in the years when end-of-year tests don’t factor into schools’ performance grades on state report cards.

“If something’s not part of accountability, it’s not taught, or it’s taught at a sub-par level,” said committee member Barbara Hairfield, an award-winning social studies teacher in Charleston County.

Social studies and civics standards prepare students to be good citizens, she added. “If these are compromised in the accountability system, we’re shortchanging our students.”

Superintendent Molly Spearman, who pushed for the reduction, said she’s confident teachers will continue teaching what students should know in each grade, according to state standards, and students will still take classroom tests.

“They have to take a report card grade home to their parents,” Spearman said. “They’re more concerned with those than state tests.”

State testing in English and math would continue annually from third through eighth grades. The change would mean, for example, that fourth-graders would take end-of-year state tests in English, math and science, while fifth-graders would take English, math and social studies.

That is among the agency’s recommendations for a new, single education accountability system to replace the dual - and often contradictory - state and federal rating systems that have confused parents for years. The goal was to craft a system that’s simple to understand and more informative.

GRADING LABELS

Also on Tuesday, the agency’s board voted unanimously to continue rating schools with the terms “excellent,” ”good,” ”average,” ”below average” or “at risk.” Last month’s suggestion that schools receive A through F grades - as schools in 17 other states do - drew a backlash from educators.

They argued the letter grades would label students, discourage economic development in communities that need it the most, and make it even harder for them to attract and keep good teachers.

“Nobody wants to go to an F school,” Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said after thanking the board for listening to educators’ concerns.

People know which schools need improvement, she added. “Don’t beat them down with a label.”

Along with an overall rating, schools’ report cards would also give performance ratings for each benchmark, including academic achievement and improvement, the English proficiency of students who speak another language at home and - for high schools - the graduation rate.

READY FOR GRADUATION?

For the first time, high schools would also be judged on whether their graduates are “prepared for success” in a job or college without taking remediation courses.

The percentage of graduates “college or career ready” would make up a quarter of each high school’s overall grade.

Under the recommendations, a graduate would be deemed ready for college by meeting one of five criteria, including scoring at least 20 on the ACT college entrance test or scoring high enough on an Advanced Placement test to earn college credit.

Being a “career ready” student would mean scoring high enough on the military’s test to enlist, earning at least a silver certificate on an ACT WorkKeys exam, earning a national industry credential or completing an approved apprenticeship.

If the Legislature approves the new accountability system this year, the changes would appear in 2018 state report cards.

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