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South Carolina schools slip from bad to worse on 'Nation's Report Card' test rankings

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Carolina Voyager (copy)

Students use iPads for a spelling lesson on Tuesday, August 26, 2014, at Carolina Voyager Charter School. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

There are no bright spots in South Carolina's latest scores on the test known as the "Nation's Report Card."

Fourth-grade math and reading scores are down. Eighth-grade achievement in both subjects has flatlined and the state's national rankings, which were low to begin with, have gotten worse.

In one shocking statistic for a state that has recently made public commitments to literacy in early childhood, South Carolina fourth-graders placed 47th in the nation on the reading section of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, down from 39th in 2015 when the test was last given.

"When I got the results, I was dumbfounded," said Melanie Barton, executive director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee.

Barton noted one alarming trend: Mississippi's fourth-graders have surpassed South Carolina's in both reading and math even though their state spends less per pupil and has some of the nation's highest poverty rates.

For Palmetto State residents who have wisecracked "Thank God for Mississippi," Barton said the new results should serve as a wake-up call.

She hopes lawmakers will consider policies from other states, such as Mississippi's investment in pre-K education and quality literacy coaches, or Florida's rigorous new state education report cards.

South Carolina schools and districts have not received overall ratings from the state since 2014, and Barton said the new rating system that takes effect next school year could bring a new sense of urgency to lagging schools.

The NAEP scores came out a week after the S.C. Department of Education launched a half-million dollar advertising blitz highlighting positive statistics about its school system, including its above-average SAT scores (which ranked 34th nationwide) and all-time high graduation rate (84.6 percent, although the adjusted cohort graduation rate trailed the national average as of 2017).

Republican state Rep. Neal Collins of Easley pointed out the incongruity of the new commercials, which are appearing in TV markets across the state, in an Instagram post Tuesday.

"If you and my colleagues are not fired up with this, I don't know what will," Collins wrote. "If the Dept of Ed doesn't take down the 'we're not that bad in education tv commercials,' I don't know what will."

The National Center for Education Statistics has administered the NAEP every two years in every state since 2003, providing a rare yardstick for comparing states' educational systems.

The test takes a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders each time, and its results are available by state but not by district, school or pupil.

The NCES administered the tests in a new tablet-based digital format last year to a representative sample of 4,800 fourth-graders and 5,000 eighth-graders across South Carolina. While some analysts believe the switch to computerized testing may have muddled results, few states saw their scores drop like South Carolina's.

The average fourth-grade reading score in South Carolina dropped from 237 to 234 — the state's biggest decline in that category since the test began 15 years ago. Most achievement gaps along racial and economic lines either remained or grew. The biggest drop in scores was among fourth-grade students with disabilities whose average math score dropped from 214 to 204.

While South Carolina has several high-performing public schools, its overall school system often ranks among the nation's worst.

When U.S. News & World Report released its inaugural state education rankings last year it ranked South Carolina dead last among all 50 states. The Palmetto State crawled to 48th on that list this year based on its high school and college graduation rates, NAEP scores, pre-kindergarten quality and educational attainment.

Meanwhile, South Carolina ranks 33rd in per-pupil spending on education but it ranks 47th in average starting salary for teachers. Like most states, it faces a worsening teacher shortage.

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