South Carolina once had the highest expectations in the country for what its students were required to learn in reading and math. Now it's attracting national attention for being the lone state to drop its standards in both subjects between 2007 and 2009.

Two recent reports have highlighted South Carolina for lowering the bar for students, a bar so low that the state now ranks in the bottom half. The change was intentional and happened in 2009 when the state stopped using the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test and started using the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards.

It's resulted in elementary and middle schools initially faring better on Adequate Yearly Progress ratings of the federal No Child Left Behind law, but the goals for schools have continued to rise and schools aren't keeping pace. The majority of the state's schools failed to make AYP this year, and low-income schools can face consequences such as having to provide tutoring and allowing students to transfer.

"We want to be competitive and we want to sit at the table of the global market place, but at the same time, we're expecting less of our children than we used to," said Jon Butzon, chairman of the Charleston Education Network, a nonprofit education advocacy group. "What really happened is we did a lot of smoke and mirrors to make it look like we're doing better when we haven't."

Others say the state aligned its definition of "proficient" to that of other states. South Carolina parents now have a better way of knowing whether their child is learning what they should, said Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the South Carolina School Boards Association.

"The standard of what we expect students to learn and teachers to teach has not changed," she said. "Those remain rigorous."

The federal government allows each state to create its own assessment and definition of proficiency, and those vary dramatically.

With the PACT exam, South Carolina had a four-tiered score system: "below basic," "basic," "proficient" and "advanced." Those were collapsed into three tiers with the PASS exam: "not met," "met" and "exemplary." The state used to be judged on whether it was meeting federal accountability goals on the students scoring in the "proficient" and "advanced" categories, but the state broadened its definition to those who scored "met" or better, meaning more students were considered proficient.

The lowering of the state's proficiency expectations has been cited in at least two recent reports -- one from the National Center for Education Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, and another from the Kingsbury Center, the research arm of the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association.

J.W. Ragley, the department's deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs, said state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais thinks the state is heading in the wrong direction on this issue. He wants to raise its proficiency standards again so they are among the toughest in the country. Zais no longer wants two systems of accountability -- the state has one system and the federal government has another -- and he wants a system that's easier for parents to understand.

"It may not happen overnight, and it will take some time," Ragley said. "But if we don't set the bar high enough, people will never achieve their full potential. That's a fundamental principle (Zais believes in), and that's what he hopes to set."