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SC high schoolers won't have to sweat end-of-course tests as much this school year

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State Superintendent Molly Spearman (right) visits with art teacher Shari Schultz at Matilda F. Dunston Elementary School on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in North Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — State schools chief Molly Spearman is waiving the requirement that state-standardized tests in five core high school classes count as 20 percent of students' grades this school year. 

The idea is to ease the testing burden and relieve students' and teachers' anxiety amid a pandemic that continues to disrupt schooling, her spokesman Ryan Brown said Wednesday. 

South Carolina's end-of-course exams for algebra 1, biology, English 1 and English 2 are used to comply with federal education testing requirements, while state law additionally requires an end-of-course U.S. history exam. 

Students will still have to take the exams, but the results don't need to make up a fifth of their grade for those classes, all of which are required to graduate. 

"In other words, districts may determine what percentage, if any, the (state exam) will count toward a student’s grade," Spearman wrote in a memo Tuesday to district superintendents statewide.

Teachers should be allowed to create their own exam or benchmarks for passing the course, as long as grade calculations meet school and district policy and the decisions are applied consistently across the district, she wrote.

A state regulation, not federal law, sets the 20 percent rule for final grades, and legislators have given Spearman discretion to waive what she can in high-stakes testing during this tumultuous school year.  

Spearman has sought a federal waiver for all standardized tests taken by elementary through high school students to meet federal law. While the U.S. Education Department approved the waivers for South Carolina and other states for tests in the spring amid forced school shutdowns nationwide, the federal agency has so far rejected requests for spring 2021.

Teachers applauded Spearman's move.

"I can’t overstate how important this is," said Patrick Kelly, a spokesman for the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

A high school social studies teacher in Richland 2, Kelly said he's watched students cry while taking the test out of fear they wouldn't receive a score good enough to pass a class and earn credit toward graduation.   

"Reducing that stress on students will be a phenomenal win on the high school level," he said. "There's no longer the pressure of a student failing to earn credit." 

That means teachers can "delve deeper to pursue students' interests," instead of trying to skim the surface on the entire array of subjects that might be on the standardized test.

That's tough enough during a normal school year, but particularly this year when many high schoolers are still learning entirely online and, even in districts that offer a full week of face-to-face learning, class time is cut short to allow for cleaning and transitioning between classes, Kelly said.

The teachers' association called on all local superintendents to take Spearman up on the offer, as the Aiken County School Board did Tuesday night when it voted to let teachers design the tests that will make up their students' grades.

The state Association of School Administrators says it's too soon to tell how all 81 districts will respond. 

Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said it's great news, if teachers are given the allowed autonomy over their classrooms. 

"Now the teacher can test on what they've actually taught or covered," she said. 

Lisa McAlpine, a Blythewood High biology teacher, said it's impossible this year to teach at the same pace and depth, as the virtual teaching has both shortened class time and made it harder for her students to "grasp the information and for me to gauge where they are.  

"I can give them multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank all day long, but some of the most powerful feedback I get is body language, and if I don’t get that I’m at a loss," said McAlpine, whose Richland Two district will remain all virtual until next month. 

She noted that even after some students return to the classroom twice weekly, others have chosen to remain in the virtual-only option all year. 

"I can shift focus a little bit. This year, being able to do something they’re really passionate about and interested about is really important," she said. "I can back off on some of the things the kids won’t use if they’re not going into a science major. I can spend more time on things I know they’re going to use every day of their life and will impact them no matter what they do."

For example, she said, her students are understandably very interested in a segment on viruses and bacteria and how they impact people. Now she can spend more time on that.  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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