State schools chief warns of lower test scores with new, timed tests

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s schools chief warned Monday that test scores will likely drop this year with students taking an unfamiliar test.

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman told members of the Education Oversight Committee she is “particularly concerned” over how students will perform on a series of tests that will now be timed.

“If you look at test results whenever a new test is implemented, the scores are going to dip,” Spearman said. “It takes awhile for the teachers to get used to the new standards and also, the students to the new style of test. I have confidence in our students that they’re going to do really well, but I just want to call attention to the public that this happens in any state that you look at.”

South Carolina fully implemented the Common Core standards statewide for the 2014-15 school year. But former Superintendent of Education Mick Zais pulled South Carolina from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which was set to test the Common Core standards this year.

Since then, the Legislature passed Act 200, which called for the rewrite of the state’s standards in an effort to move away from Common Core, after they came under fire in a number of states as a way to nationalize education and standardize curriculum at the state level.

Act 200 also banned the state from using tests by Smarter Balanced, forcing the Department of Education to find a replacement test in a few months. Teachers now have a compressed amount of time to familiarize themselves with the exams.

“We just need to realize that there’s a lot of change going on in the assessment area,” Spearman said. “It’s a big change for us this year.”

The state will be conducting three different tests based on grades: third- through eighth-graders will take the ACT Aspire, which measures student performance. Eleventh-graders will take the ACT WorkKeys — which measures the job readiness level of students who want to head for the workforce after high school — and the college entrance exam ACT Plus Writing.

EOC Executive Director Melanie Barton echoed Spearman on the possibility of test scores dipping. Barton said the tests will be a different experience for students who are not used to being timed.

“The timing is going to be an issue,” she added. “You’ve got to get your thoughts — let’s go — you’ve got to write it. But tests are shorter. That’s a good thing.”

In other business, the new math standards will be introduced to the Board of Education on Wednesday for first reading, Spearman said. Writing teams have been working since the passage of Act 200 to rewrite the state’s English language arts and math standards. The ELA standards were introduced in January to the board.

Barton also said the EOC is evaluating the technological divide between school districts as the state moves to end-of-year testing that’s fully online. Just three school districts have a computer, laptop or tablet for every student, Barton said. That represents 4 percent of districts statewide.

Her agency plans to release results of a survey on districts’ technological capabilities later this month. Beginning in 2017, students must take end-of-year tests online.

To prepare for that, legislators committed last year to spending about $30 million annually for three years. Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year includes the second installment.

Spearman is requesting up to $350,000 of that to hire employees who could travel to rural districts to provide technological expertise.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.