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A banner emphasizing respect in a repurposed Clarendon School District 1 library in Summerton on Monday, May 21, 2018. File/Wade Spees/Staff

South Carolina's public school system remains hobbled by inequality and routinely graduates students with a high school diploma but little preparation for college or a career, according to the state's new school report card data.

The new report cards available at show that, in the last school year:

  • Fewer than half of South Carolina students met their state grade-level standards in English or math
  • Fewer than half of students learning English as a second or other language made adequate progress toward proficiency
  • Three out of 10 high school graduates in the class of 2018 — nearly 15,000 students — were not prepared for either college or a career
  • Fifteen percent of parents surveyed said their child did not feel safe at school

The statistics were grimmer in high-poverty schools, segregated minority schools, and in entire rural districts across the state, where in many cases fewer than half of high school diploma-earners were ready for college or a career, as measured by the ACT and Ready to Work tests. And the new report cards don't include job- and career-readiness scores of high schoolers who drop out.

State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said she hopes administrators at schools with low ratings “take an honest look at it."

"I hope we won’t become defensive but we’ll use it as a road map for the areas we really need to work on and admit we can’t do it by ourselves," Spearman said.

The report cards echo a familiar story, as documented in The Post and Courier's recent investigative series, Minimally Adequate. The series detailed how South Carolina schools have trailed the nation for decades while the Legislature has made few efforts to overhaul the state's education system since the 1980s. In the wake of the series, Gov. Henry McMaster and some high-ranking state lawmakers have said education will be at the top of the agenda when the next legislative session begins in January.

In a change that could help address huge disparities among elementary and middle schools, student improvement now is as important on the report cards as overall performance. The schools get ratings for overall student progress and for those who score in the bottom 20 percent, both of which factor heavily into the overall ratings.

This change will force schools to pay more attention to struggling students, said Michelle Simmons, executive director of elementary schools for the Charleston County School District.

"They cannot be ignored," she said.

Over time, the new emphasis could help reduce huge disparities among schools by pushing educators to focus more on low-performing students, even within academic powerhouses. 

"Closing the achievement gap is a priority, and these indicators draw attention to that work," Simmons added.

It also means that schools with greater challenges, such as intense poverty, can come out looking better. Take St. James-Santee Elementary in rural McClellanville, where only 9 percent of students met or exceeded English language expectations. Overall, however, the school earned an "Average" rating largely because its students made "excellent" progress.

"They can grow kids and get credit for that," Simmons said.

That credit, in turn, will draw attention to schools doing especially well with struggling students. 

"That's a relatively good way of understanding what we need to do more of," said John Read, CEO of the Tricounty Cradle to Career Collaborative. "What's happening in that school that's different?"

However, Read and others worry that the report cards don't do enough to highlight demographic factors that play heavily into test scores.

"You're getting the results of poverty and the results of everything that poverty creates in a kid's life," said Don Gordon, executive director of The Riley Institute, a public policy think tank at Furman University. "I see people looking at these (report cards), and there's going to be a false narrative. They will look at it as if it's the school's fault."

But Gregory McCord, superintendent of the high-poverty Marlboro County School District, said schools simply need to use the report cards as motivation to work hard for all children.

"Our efforts will be increased in every avenue," McCord said. "I like knowing we have a mark to shoot for."

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Forest Lake Elementary students Nick Washington and Robert Derrick presented flowers to State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman on Nov. 29, 2018, after she announced state report cards results at the Columbia school that received an "Excellent" rating. File/Seanna Adcox/Staff 

Meanwhile, some components of the new report card and ranking system are riddled with inaccurate data and apparent self-contradictions, leaving some school district leaders and advocates questioning the state's ability to diagnose its own problems.

The state delayed releasing the report cards for two weeks after Spearman raised questions about the accuracy of survey data provided by the Georgia-based contractor AdvancED. Charleston-area school district leaders also complained that the report cards' measures for progress were misleading, questioned the methodology for labeling certain schools "Unsatisfactory," and disputed the report cards' claims about how many teachers were working without the proper state certification.

The new report card and accountability system was four years in the making. But in Dorchester County School District 2, spokeswoman Pat Raynor said Thursday that the report card appeared "hurriedly released with last-minute revisions and unresolved issues."

State Board of Education member Jon Butzon believes the reality in South Carolina schools is even worse than the picture portrayed by the report card data.

"There are schools that got 62 points out of 100 and got rated 'Excellent,'" Butzon said. "The average person looks at that and says, 'Well, that doesn’t make any sense.' And it doesn’t make any sense, because we’ve jimmied the system to make it look better for the system than to give us an honest appraisal of how our schools are doing."

Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

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

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.