— Dorchester District 2 school students soon could be exempt from taking most tests that are part of state and federal accountability requirements.

The tests

Following is a breakdown of the ACT-created standardized tests Dorchester 2 students would take this spring if the U.S. Department of Education signs off on its exemption request from federal accountability mandates. Alabama has adopted all of the ACT tests as its new accountability system.

ASPIRE: Tests for grades 3-8 in English language arts, mathematics and science in lieu of PASS in English language arts, mathematics and science; students still would take the PASS social studies exam.

Quality Core: End-of-course assessments in grades 9-11 in chemistry, algebra II, geometry, English II and English III, and students also would take the state's end-of-course assessment program (biology, algebra I, U.S. history, and English I).

WorkKeys: An 11th- and 12th-grade job skills test for workforce readiness.

COMPASS: A computer adaptive technical college placement test; and the ACT — an 11th- and 12th-grade curriculum-based assessment used for college admissions.

Source: Dorchester District 2

The high-achieving school district serving lower Dorchester County is the only one in the state seeking a waiver from PASS tests and exit exams. The district instead would use a package of tests being designed by ACT, which is best known for its college entrance exam.

District leaders said they want to use the ACT-developed tests because they think it would be better for students, teachers, parents and employers. The ACT testing system is coordinated and connected among every grade, which means the tests can better measure and monitor students' academic achievement over time, according to the district.

The goal would be to identify and address students' academic weaknesses earlier, and they say that would boost their chances of being college and career ready by graduation.

“We like the package and what it represents: It's teacher- and parent-friendly, and we can track children from third grade to senior year,” said Dorchester 2 Superintendent Joe Pye. “It is much better. ... There's no perfect answer, but I think it's worth trying.”

State officials will watch Dorchester 2 closely to see whether ACT's tests could be a better fit for the entire state.

Potential state model

The state Board of Education signed off Wednesday on the district's proposal to use the package of tests offered by ACT this spring rather than take the state PASS or exit exams. That means the district's schools wouldn't receive the same report card and rating that every other school in the state receives. Instead, the state Education Oversight Committee would work with the district to design an alternative report card system.

But the district has one more significant hurdle to clear before it can move forward with its plans. The U.S. Department of Education has to approve its exemption request from the federal accountability system. That system uses PASS and HSAP scores to assign “A” through “F” letter grades to schools, and Dorchester 2 would not take those tests or be given a grade.

A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing the request but could not answer any questions about it yet.

If the department didn't approve the request and Dorchester 2 refused to use PASS and exit exams, the school district could lose millions in federal dollars.

Pye said forgoing that money wasn't an option. And he said he already promised teachers that the district wouldn't “double test,” or use the ACT tests as well as those required for federal accountability, so the district would drop its pilot of the ACT exams. Testing students using different systems would put too much of a strain on students and teachers, he said.

“We would be disappointed, but we would move on,” Pye said. “We feel like that's counterproductive, and I can't put teachers through that. All that I'm asking is for them to allow us to be innovative.”

At least two other districts in the state, Spartanburg 1 and Spartanburg 6, plan to use some of the ACT-created tests this year, but they still plan to “double test” by using South Carolina assessments.

Changing tests?

The state will have to use a new test by 2014-15 because schools will be teaching the Common Core State Standards. Those standards define what students must learn at every grade in reading and math, and it will be implemented in full by the 2014-15 school year.

The state Board of Education already has adopted a test being developed by the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. State board Chairman David Blackmon said the board hasn't discussed using a test other than that one, but that could be an issue the board takes up.

Some members of the state Board of Education and the state Education Oversight Committee met as recently as this week to listen to presentations about different testing packages from SAT, ACT and SMARTER Balanced.

“What you really have in Dorchester 2 is you have a school district with exceptional leadership saying, 'We don't want to wait to figure out what assessment is going to be there,'” said Melanie Barton, executive director of the state Education Oversight Committee. “We have one that is available to us, and ... we've got industry in our community that are saying not enough of students are ready for college and career. So we're going to be innovative and up front, and let's try something for this year. Anything is better than what we're doing now.”

Speaking for himself and not the board, Blackmon said he would be open to a different test. Colleges spend millions in remediating students who are not college ready, and employers spend extraordinary amounts of money to train workers. Tests such as those by ACT could help redirect students earlier to ensure they are at higher performance levels when they finish high school, he said.

“I commend the Dorchester 2 leadership for what they're trying to do,” Blackmon said. “It seems to have a lot of possibility for presenting evidence that high school graduates are career and college ready.”

How it works

Dorchester 2 has been working for months on getting the go-ahead to pilot the ACT tests. Its leaders asked some local lawmakers, such as Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, and Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, to draft a one-year budget proviso that allowed the district to request the waiver from the state and federal accountability systems.

The Legislature and governor signed off on the proposal, which allowed any district rated “excellent” on the state report card and receiving an “A” on its federal report card to request a waiver from the state's testing program.

It allowed the district to substitute the state tests with alternatives that would measure college and career readiness and monitor individual students' progress. But the proviso required the district to still administer the PASS test for grades 3-8 in social studies, as well as end of course exams, which cover biology, algebra, English and U.S. history.

Students graduating this year still also must pass the exit exam to earn a diploma, but those scores wouldn't count toward any kind of rating for schools or the district.

Jay W. Ragley, a deputy superintendent at the state Department of Education, said Zais wasn't involved in creating the proviso, and no one asked the agency, which is tasked with implementing accountability and assessment mandates, for input.

“We might've found a way to help them better,” he said.

The district's proposal leaves a lot of unanswered questions, such as the district's learning goals, what kind of ACT testing alternatives would be available for learning disabled students, and whether an objective source can show the ACT tests are aligned with Common Core.

Pye said the district won't have to pay to use the ACT tests this year. Some of its goals include growing by 3 percent annually students who meet ACT college and career readiness benchmarks.

Going forward

The district hopes to use the ACT tests for the next three years, and Assistant Superintendent Sean Alford said these tests could be one of the answers to unite those of differing political perspectives.

“It doesn't matter if you are right wing, left wing, no wing, tea party,” he said. “It doesn't matter who you are, you cannot argue the importance of college and career readiness. You cannot refuse to toss your hat into the circle of support for college and career readiness.”

Brenda Rindge contributed to this report. Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.