COLUMBIA -- South Carolina public school students will not take standardized writing tests in four grades next year as lawmakers try to cut costs and keep potential teacher layoffs to a minimum.
The move is irking few legislators and few educators, who say keeping teachers in classrooms is the highest priority for scant budget money. But the decision to cut back on standardized testing offers some insight into the debate about the best use of school time and resources.
"Students get burned out, and teachers are so driven by the tests, they sometimes forget about the child," said Anita Looper Richardson, a third-grade teacher and Pickens County Teacher of the Year.
Each spring, students take tests to satisfy state and federal accountability laws.
Since 1998, South Carolina has relied on an increasing number of tests to judge the performance of public schools and districts. But in the midst of a budget crisis that threatens thousands of teachers' jobs statewide, politicians and educators alike said some of the tests that were not federally mandated should go.
The House version of the budget limited science testing to two primary grades, canceled social studies tests and, at the high school level, suspended end-of-course tests in English, algebra and science, which make up 20 percent of final grades in each course.
But the Senate threw that out. Legislators then quickly passed a bill deleting the separate, two-day writing portion of the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards in four grades so that only fifth- and eighth-graders will take it. That suspension became law Thursday without the governor's signature.
The $1.6 million saved on writing tests is minuscule compared with the $500 million hole dug in education funding over the past two years even after factoring in federal stimulus money. Up to 3,800 education jobs, including 2,500 teachers, could be eliminated in South Carolina over the next few months, according to a survey of districts by the state education agency.
While some worry that nontested subjects will suffer in the classroom, many teachers also welcome the idea of less of the structured, high-stakes testing.
State education officials agree writing is a critically important skill that should be tested in primary grades. But the chairman of the Senate Finance subcommittee on K-12 education said cutting it was the better option. "We're looking for every possible way to save money without having to cut back on teachers," said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill."
Some teachers were cheering the prospect of cutting all of the above. They complain students' test results don't come back soon enough to help them in the classroom, they're exasperated by the associated paperwork and they say the time spent preparing for a single test could be better spent on lessons.
At least one other state has canceled some standardized tests. Last month, Idaho canceled writing and math tests for 2010-11, partly to save money. Several national education groups said they knew of no other state suspending testing to cut costs.