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From The State

S.C. schools | Bill targets PACT exams
House backs plan to revamp state’s standardized tests
By The Associated Press

End-of-the-year tests for third- through eighth-graders in S.C. public schools could be replaced with exams that give teachers more detailed and timely information under a bill given key approval Wednesday by the House.

The bill revamps standardized testing that the state’s 1998 Education Accountability Act created. It faces a routine vote before heading to the Senate.

The measure also would replace terminology schools use to describe a student’s progress on those tests.

Many educators dislike Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests because they are cumbersome to grade and provide little detail about students’ academic strengths and weaknesses in math, science, social studies and English/language arts.

Those high-stakes tests, however, are used to rate schools and districts under state and federal accountability laws.

A new, multiple-choice test — called the Elementary and Middle School Assessment Program — would replace PACTs in 2010 and give teachers feedback in a matter of days instead of months, House Education Committee chairman Bob Walker said.

A writing portion, which takes longer to grade, would be administered months earlier, he said.

“When teachers get the test back, they’ll know exactly where the student is,” the Landrum Republican said.

The proposed law calls for the state to pay for students to take practice tests at least twice annually. Most school districts already give such tests, usually done on computers, to give teachers immediate feedback, but the state covers only part of the cost.

The bill mandates practice tests in math and reading in first through ninth grades.

State schools chief Jim Rex supports giving teachers more information from such midyear tests to help with gauging student progress, but he also criticized the bill for not reducing the number of mandatory tests taken each spring. Rex pushed to curtail end-of-year testing in social studies and science, but was thwarted by House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Rex said the bill “would mean more testing and not less. From what I’m hearing across the state, more testing is not what parents and teachers want.”

Some Democratic legislators wanted the new test in place by 2009, which Rex supported.

Walker successfully argued 2010 is a more reasonable time frame to develop and try the new tests. Students have taken the PACT annually since 1999, but not in all four subjects. Social studies and science were added in 2003.

The legislation would change the scoring labels. Students today are judged as either “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient” and “advanced,” terms derived from a national testing system.

The state considers “basic” — defined as minimally prepared for the next grade — a passing score. The U.S. Education Department judges schools solely on students scoring “proficient” and “advanced.”

Educators insist South Carolina’s standards, crafted prior to the 2002 federal law, are more rigorous than other states’. A “basic” score here might be “proficient” elsewhere.

Under the proposal, grading terms would change to “exemplary,” “met” and “not met.” “Met” would be equivalent to doing work at grade level for federal proficiency standards.

Legislators say the changes would present a more accurate picture of how South Carolina students perform, when compared to other states nationwide.