S.C. above average on federal math tests, just below average on reading


The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report measures what students know and can do in core academic subjects. It is also the only assessment that allows states to compare their results with other states across the nation.

State 4th-graders exceeded the national average score by one point, and only 15 states performed higher than South Carolina. Eighth-graders topped the national average by three points, and 11 states performed higher than South Carolina.

The tests are given to a representative sample of students in each state. In South Carolina, 256 schools participated. Berkeley County School District schools included Berkeley Middle School, Sangaree Intermediate School, College Park Middle School, J.K. Gourdin Elementary School, Sedgefield Middle School, Westview Middle School and Whitesville Elementary School.

South Carolina has drawn national attention recently for its improvement on NAEP. Three independent research studies have hailed South Carolina as a leader in improvement on the federal tests.

"The 2005 NAEP results show us two things," said State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum. "First, our schools have come a long way in a very short period of time. And second, we still have a lot of hard work to do. Yes, we’re above the national average in math and very close in reading, but now we need to raise the bar and aim even higher."

Tenenbaum renewed her call for Congress to set a national benchmark for "proficiency" under NCLB, which allows individual states to set their own proficiency standards. South Carolina’s academic proficiency standards have been ranked among the nation’s toughest by six independent reviews. As a result, South Carolina’s NAEP scores correspond closely with state PACT (Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests) scores. Many other states, such as Texas, have set their standards lower, however, and students in those states tend to fare better on their state tests than on the national NAEP tests.

Programs that assist under-achieving students helped produce a dramatic decrease in the percentage of students scoring Below Basic, Tenenbaum said. In 2000, for example, 41 percent of South Carolina 4th-graders scored Below Basic on the NAEP mathematics test. In 2005, that 41 percent was reduced to only 19 percent.

Mathematics highlights

State 4th-graders’ average math score increased two points from 2003 to 2005, from 236 to 238 (national average 237, up three points from 2003). Eighth-graders’ average math score increased four points, from 277 to 281 (national average 278, up two from 2003). 

Overall, in NAEP mathematics, South Carolina 4th-graders scored about the same or better than students in 34 out of 50 states. South Carolina scored higher than 17: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Eighth-graders scored about the same or better in math than students in 38 states. South Carolina scored higher than 20: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Reading highlights

Palmetto State 4th-grade average reading scores decreased two points from 2003 to 2005, from 215 to 213 (national average 217, up one point from 2003). 8th-graders’ average reading score decreased one point from 258 to 257 (national average 260, down one point from 2003).

Overall, in NAEP reading, South Carolina 4th-graders scored about the same or better than students in 16 states. South Carolina scored higher than eight: Alabama, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico.

South Carolina 8th-graders scored higher in reading than Alabama, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico.

Tenenbaum said she was disappointed with the dip in reading scores but is optimistic that students will show improvement.

"We were five points below the national average in reading and I’m very disappointed. But I predict that next time we’ll see a rise in reading," she said. "We have to get above the national average."

Tenenbaum said the General Assembly could help by restoring summer school funding and giving more money to family literacy programs and the South Carolina Reading Initiative, which is currently deployed in 53 of 86 school districts.

"Family literacy is a big issue in South Carolina," she said. "Parents must know that reading to their kids each evening is fundamental. We struggle with this but we have to stay the course and continue to find parents who will turn off the TV and open books at night."

Tenenbaum has an ally in Eileen Chepenik, executive director of Trident Literary Association in North Charleston.

"I agree with Superintendent Tenenbaum," Chepenik said. "It is encouraging that students in South Carolina have made so much progress on the test scores. However, another important statistic is the percentage of our students who remain in school through 12th-grade graduation. As far as literacy is concerned, it is critical to look at the whole picture. When parents don’t know how to read or have low-level literacy skills and haven’t graduated from high school themselves, their children also are not likely to be successful in school."

This results in a tragic cycle that perpetuates illiteracy and associated ills, such as higher rates of incarceration, welfare dependency and healthcare costs, she said. That’s why it’s important to provide adult literacy programs while also working on improving student reading scores.

"Perhaps the adults will get their GED or go on to higher education," Chepenik said. "At least they will be able to read to their children, help them with their schoolwork, and encourage them to be interested in learning. Adult literacy programs fill a critical void and should be generously funded by our legislature. It is never too late to learn how to read. Not only the individual, but also the entire community benefits."

Progress not fast enough?

Jon Butzon, executive director of the Charleston Education Network said much attention is focused on the percentage of children scoring Basic on the NAEP. He noted that the standard South Carolina is trying to attain is Proficient, not Basic, and those numbers are not so glowing.

"In 1992, 22 percent of 4th-graders were proficient or better in reading," Butzon said. "In 2005, 13 years later, that percentage had ‘soared’ to 26 percent. At that rate of improvement [4 percentage points every 13 years], how long will it take us to get 90 percent of our students, the state goal, to the proficient level? If you said 208 years, you win the prize."

He said the rate of improvement is too small, too slow.

"I’m not sure we are even standing still when you consider the rate at which the marketplace and workplace are becoming more complex and more demanding of high level skills," he said.

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