Un-ESEA Feelings

It is often difficult to discern through the fog of letters and numbers, percentages and demographic breakdowns swirling above the cauldron of alphabet soup of state school assessments just what those assessments assess. HSAP. PASS. ESEA. Are we measuring whether or not students have mastered the material and are fully armed and equipped to enter the outside world as productive citizens? Or are we measuring whether or not students improve from year to year? And if it is the latter, how do you measure improvement in a student who remains an A student from one year to the next? Certainly that student is ready to move the tassel on the mortarboard, but there is little room for any measurable improvement.

Confused? You should be.

Last week’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) data, released by the State Department of Education, dealt the Fairfield County School District a cruel blow, dropping it from a letter grade of B in 2012 to a D in 2013. Yet, scores on this year’s High School Assessment Program (HSAP) tests, as well as on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) tests, improved – in some areas, dramatically. Graduation rates are up, End of Course exam numbers are up and dropout numbers are virtually stagnant (13 in 2011-2012 versus 12 in 2010-2011, but still down from the 25 who fell by the wayside in 2009-2010).

So who is measuring whom, and with what?

Educators statewide have, over the last week and a half, been justifiably vocal in their criticisms of the ESEA format, and one can see why. While many of the numbers used in the ESEA calculations are from the 2012-2013 school year, nearly half are compiled from 2011-2012 data, making a fair and clear assessment of any school district impossible. And with ESEA, which was put in place as an alternative to the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) format employed under the No Child Left Behind act, in the second year of its two-year cycle of approved use, it is likely that next year an entirely different amalgam of capital letters will be mashed together and used to measure our education system. Perhaps with some divine intervention, the next system will be less convoluted and more accurate.

The one thing we can accurately glean from the ESEA letters is that there is a need for improvement. The HSAP and PASS numbers indicate the same, particularly in math and science. But what the PASS and HSAP numbers also tell us is that in the areas of writing, social studies and English, Fairfield County students are getting it, and getting it well. Most impressive, no doubt, was the doubling of the percentage of students who scored at the “exceptional” level on the English Language Arts portion of the HSAP exam between 2012 and 2013. That is real, tangible improvement.

Yes, there is work to be done – there always will be. But it also appears that, at long last, that work is actually being done in Fairfield County Schools. Whether the State Department can get on with theirs, and devise a reasonable, rational measuring stick, remains to be seen.