Less than two months before his last day on the job, former Beaufort County superintendent Jeff Moss stood in front of the school board and proclaimed success at accomplishing something few districts in the nation have — closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
He told the board that, in one regard, Hispanic and black students had even outperformed their white peers in Beaufort County.
“I know the board continually asks ‘Are we doing what we need to be doing?’ ... I hope you see from this that yes, what we’re doing is working and continues to work each and every year,” Moss told the Beaufort County Board of Education at a meeting on June 7.
Recent data, however, tell a different story.
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Results from two standardized tests South Carolina uses to measure the quality of education in districts across the state show that fewer than half of all third- through eighth-grade students in the Beaufort County School District are proficient in math and English and fewer than half of all fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders are proficient in science.
What’s more, the test scores show that the achievement gap between the district’s white students and students of color has grown wider in recent years.
“There is an achievement gap problem, and the educators in this system know it,” said interim superintendent Herb Berg, who took over for Moss in August. “And I expect (chief instructional officer) Bonnie (Almond) and the other principals and educational leaders to analyze the problem and figure out a solution that will help and start moving toward addressing the problem.”
On the 2017-18 SC Ready exam, only 41 percent of all Beaufort County students in third through eighth grades met or exceeded expectations in English language arts and 46 percent did the same in math. On the SC Pass exam, 48 percent of fourth-, sixth- and eigth-graders met or exceeded expectation in science and 66 percent in social studies.
The number of Beaufort County students who have tested proficient in the four subjects on the exams has dropped across the board over the past three years — anywhere from a 10 percent decline in social studies to a half-percent decline in math.
The overall downtrend though isn’t the only troubling statistic to come from the recent test scores.
The scores also reveal that the district’s academic achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers remains a persistent problem — even for the wealthiest county in the South Carolina.
For example, white students met or exceeded expectations in math and English at a rate three times higher than black students and two times higher than Hispanic students.
While six out of every 10 white students met or exceeded expectations only three out of 10 Hispanic students and two out of 10 black students did the same.
Over the past three years, the achievement gap between white students and their peers of color has remained stagnant or increased in all four subject areas covered by the exams.
The gap between white and black students who meet or exceed expectations on the social studies portion of the SC Pass exam, for instance, has worsened by nearly 20 percent during the past three years.
Berg said the gap is significantly tied to the number of students in the district who live in poverty, which was 56 percent of students in 2017, according the S.C. Department of Education.
“The more poverty you have, the higher the hill to climb in basic education and gap closing,” Berg said Tuesday.
When asked what has prevented the district from closing the gap over the past three years, Almond, the district’s chief instructional officer, said it was because of a lack of uniform expectations from the state.
Historically, each school in South Carolina received a rating from “excellent” to “at-risk” on their annual report cards from the SC. Department of Education. The ratings, which were intended to help hold school administrators accountable for student success, were based on various criteria such as test scores, student growth and closing the achievement gap.
However, the ratings were suspended for the last three years as the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, the S.C. Department of Education and other key stakeholders developed a new accountability system to meet state and federal mandates.
“I think we’ve come through a time where there was no accountability measures,” Almond said. “We’ve gone through a time when testing has changed a lot so we didn’t have the utopia expectation of where we should all be.”
On Nov. 15, the 2017-18 South Carolina school report cards will be released — complete with school ratings for the first time in three years.
Almond said the new ratings will allow administrators and teachers to get a better handle on the issues each school is facing and how they can better serve students.
“To me, it’s not that I don’t think (the achievement gap) is important, but what’s important is a having a consistent measurement so we can really see what we have to do, and it’s not just focused on one state assessment,” she said Tuesday.
At a school board meeting on Oct. 2, board member David Striebinger asked Almond to come up with a strategy for how the district would close the gap and define its success in the future.
“What I’d really like to see is an action plan with due dates and the targets. If we can see the targets … it would just give me a heck of a lot of comfort,” Striebinger said.
Almond said Tuesday that her office is working on such a plan but that it’s going to take some time to develop.
For instance, her team has recently began the process of analyzing the district’s educational programs to see how much each program costs and how students have performed after using one compared to another, she said.
“If there are programs that are working and are doing well for us, then we’ll probably recommend keeping those,” she said. “There also may be some that we eliminate because maybe they’re not helping our students reach the meet or exceed standards.”
Where does Beaufort County School District go from here?
At a board meeting on June 7, Moss presented data about the district’s first- and second-graders from another exam that measures student achievement.
MAP, which stand for Measure of Academic Progress, is a computerized test that covers math and reading and is used to measure a student’s progress in school.
The 2018 data presented by Moss showed a gap of anywhere between 2 percent and 7 percent in academic growth between white students and those of color in both reading and math from first-graders, as well as in reading for second-graders.
However, second-grade Hispanic and black students slightly outperformed their white peers in math by less than 1 percent.
When presenting the data to board members, Moss said the data showed that there was “no gap.”
“If this doesn’t prove that what we’re doing is on the right path, then I really don’t know what else we could show, because that achievement gap level is one that would be welcomed by any school district in the United States,” he said.
During Moss’ five-year tenure, he faced ridicule from some community and board members for presenting certain data and figures that appeared to downplay various problems in the district instead of giving the full picture.
Almond said Tuesday that she believed Moss was merely “trying to show that we we were showing significant growth in those areas.”
Still, Almond said that she thought it was “dangerous to talk about any of this test data in isolation.”
Berg, on the other hand, plainly stated that the district’s achievement gap was a “huge problem.”
“I’m not someone who’s going to say there isn’t a problem or do anything but acknowledge it,” he said. “But once you acknowledge it, let’s get together and figure out how we’re going to close it.”