This op-ed originally appeared in The State.

South Carolina is days away from taking an important step to improve our schools, and you’re invited to help. Before Jan. 5, you have the opportunity to offer input about how our state should measure school accountability and report school performance to citizens.
So how did we get to this important moment? Let’s begin with some background.

The federal government recently replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law gives states more flexibility in developing their own accountability systems.

We are fortunate to have talented people making fact-based recommendations on our new accountability system serving on the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee — a group of educators, business leaders and elected officials appointed by the governor and Legislature. The EOC released its draft of recommendations in early December and has asked the public to weigh in by Jan. 5. The final EOC recommendation will go to state lawmakers for approval.

In support of this work, our team at SouthCarolinaCAN developed a 2016 state of education report. This is a first-of-its-kind assessment of our public education system and serves the important purpose of bridging the gap between No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act. The report is fully interactive.

There are many important findings in our report, but the key finding is this: Our state methods for measuring school accountability do not reflect the national measurements of our student achievement data.

For example, on our previous state assessment, the majority of our schools were rated either “excellent” or “average,” while only 4 percent of schools were rated, “at-risk,” the lowest rating. Meanwhile, on national assessments, only 36 percent of South Carolina’s fourth graders and 33 percent of eighth graders tested proficient in math and reading, respectively. This illustrates a major shortcoming of the previous state accountability system: Schools could receive a positive grade even though student subgroups within the school were underperforming on national assessments.

Our new accountability system must give parents a more accurate picture of school performance by improving the way the state measures performance of student subgroups within all schools and not just overall school results.

So, how do we fix this?

We should start by ensuring any new accountability system enhances the way we measure both student growth (the academic progress made over the course of the school year) and student proficiency (the ability to perform on grade-level) for all schools. Only by better evaluating both measures can we accurately reward schools for the important work they do: ensuring our highest performers continue to excel while at the same time making sure that the students furthest behind get the support they need to get back on track.

Second, our report makes clear that parents deserve an accountability system that evaluates schools equally, prioritizes the achievement of all students rather than the majority of students and provides a clear and comprehensive rating that reflects how well their child’s school is preparing students for college and career.

SouthCarolinaCAN recently conducted a scientific poll of 600 S.C. registered voters to gauge public support for important aspects of public education as well as components of a successful accountability system. Among the findings of the poll: 54 percent of residents favor fixing schools before roads, 62 percent support giving parents more choice with charter schools depending on the circumstance, and 33 percent favor adopting school report cards that assign A-F letter-grades based on performance — that’s nine points higher than the support for the next most popular report card format, numerical ratings.

While there is debate about the best form for report cards to take — letter grades, numerical ratings or categorical ratings such as “excellent” and “at-risk” — it’s clear that a consistent and transparent accountability system is crucial to student success.

In addition to the EOC, I thank the state Department of Education and the S.C. Association of School Administrators for their important and extensive work in drafting recommendations. And I would urge everyone to consider sharing their thoughts with the EOC.

We’re making progress in South Carolina. I encourage us all to muster the courage to take full advantage of this opportunity to improve accountability within our education system. Our students are counting on us to get this right.

Bradford is SouthCarolinaCAN’s Executive Director. He lives in Greenville with his wife, Ashley, and their two young children, William and Charlotte. He’s bad at spelling, which is why he loves Mark Twain’s quote, “Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.”


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