For South Carolina parents curious about the public schools in their neighborhood, the state has a brand-new set of online report cards with a wealth of data — and plenty of opportunities for confusion.

The state Education Agency released ratings Thursday of all schools statewide as part of an overhaul of the education accountability system that seeks to bring low-performing schools up to speed. The new state report cards can be found at SCReportCards.com.

Schools are once again rated Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average or Unsatisfactory following a four-year hiatus when the state released raw data but no ratings for its schools.

These ratings are based on a 100-point scale, but the scale doesn't work like a classroom teacher's grading scale.

An elementary school, for example, can notch a score of 62 and still be rated Excellent. At the other end, it takes a score of 33 or lower for an elementary school to be rated Unsatisfactory.

The ratings involve students' standardized test scores as well as surveys. In elementary school, for example, up to 10 points each are awarded for school quality and "preparing for success."

The "school quality" points are based on a student survey administered by AdvancED, a national accrediting organization. Some of the best-rated schools for academic performance earned rock-bottom scores on their student surveys, leading some district leaders to question the validity of the data.

The report cards also include some information that doesn't count toward a school's overall rating but that parents might want to know. The report cards include figures like average teacher salary and student safety information based on parent and teacher evaluations. By clicking on a yellow shield icon on a school's report card page, a parent can learn how many physical attacks, gun incidents and sexual assaults took place at a school in the last academic year.

Bad grades

The report card release closely follows The Post and Courier’s Minimally Adequate series, which detailed how gaping inequities, segregation and a legacy of low expectations contribute to South Carolina’s status among the nation’s worst schools.

Academically, the report cards continue to paint a grim picture of South Carolina's education as a whole, indicating that many schools are failing to produce graduates who are prepared for college or the workforce.

Only about 43 percent of diploma earners last school year were deemed college-ready, while 66 percent were deemed career-ready.

“I encourage all South Carolinians to take time to look at these results," state Superintendent Molly Spearman said in a press conference Thursday at Forest Lake Elementary School in Columbia, which received an Excellent rating as it had in years' past.

"But if you want to get the full picture, go visit your local school," she added. "Go inside its doors, meet the principals, the teachers and the students and then you’ll really know everything that’s going on today.”

Spearman noted that the data file has more than 11 million pieces of information.

“This is the most transparent, expansive report we have ever done on schools in South Carolina,” she said.

Melanie Barton, director of the Education Oversight Committee, the independent agency that oversees student accountability, said the report cards show the state’s teacher shortage crisis is taking a toll.

“The No. 1 factor in student achievement is the teacher,” she said. 

Barton cautioned against comparing these report card ratings to schools’ and districts’ previous state report cards because the new system sets the bar higher. Many schools that used to receive higher ratings may find lower ones this time.

“It’s a totally different system. The goal line has changed. It’s not enough just to graduate. Students have got to be college or career ready,” she said. “It’s the reflection of where we are."

One big change for elementary and middle schools is that students’ progress over the year is just as important as their overall test scores. And half of that improvement score reflects the progress of students who were in the bottom 20 percent of performers.

"That's huge," as it can help low-performing schools that are really working boost their ratings, Spearman said. 

It's also important for ensuring kids don’t get stuck in the bottom and hidden in overall scores, Barton said.

“We’ve got to focus on closing the gap,” she said.

Questionable results

School leaders received an advance copy of their report cards only about 24 hours before the general public. Some have responded with skepticism.

In Berkeley County, school district officials were incensed that the state decided ahead of time how many schools would fall into each category this year, including about 10 percent to be rated Unsatisfactory and another 20 percent Below Average. Two schools in Berkeley County earned the Unsatisfactory mark, along with 14 in Charleston County, one in Dorchester 2 and one in Dorchester 4.

The district said in a press release Thursday that it found "discrepancies in nearly every way the schools were measured — even at those schools the report card awarded its highest score."

"This is screaming for another accountability model," District Superintendent Eddie Ingram said. "We appreciate the effort, but there is plenty of room for improvement."

Dorchester 2 district leaders expressed concerns to the state about the School Quality indicator, which was based on a survey administered by a contractor that Spearman herself recently blamed for a botched data set. District spokeswoman Pat Raynor also disputed the state report card's claim that 13.3 percent of Dorchester 2 teachers were teaching “out of field;" she said none were teaching outside their certified field.

"Superintendent Joe Pye remains concerned that the report card was hurriedly released with last minute revisions and unresolved issues," Raynor said.

In Charleston County, the state's second-largest district, Executive Director of Assessment and Evaluation Buffy Roberts said some of the district's best-performing schools were dinged on their report cards because their average performance, as measured by state tests, improved by a smaller amount than the state average.

"The report card's method of computing progress is slightly misleading because it measures if the school on average grew more or less than the state average, based on the state's grade-level tests, rather than measuring the amount of academic progress that students actually made individually," Roberts said.

Buist Academy, a K-8 magnet school whose admissions process is more selective than Harvard's, earned an overall rating of Average this year. Its rating for academic achievement was Excellent, but its overall score was dragged down by an Unsatisfactory rating for student progress.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.