S.C. schools need tougher reading, writing standards

BY AMBER M. NORTHERN and MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
Posted 9/9/18

In 2015, South Carolina adopted new standards in English language arts (ELA) after making the decision to "un-adopt" the Common Core. In doing so, the state was well within its rights. But South Carolina also has a responsibility to make sure its …

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S.C. schools need tougher reading, writing standards

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In 2015, South Carolina adopted new standards in English language arts (ELA) after making the decision to "un-adopt" the Common Core. In doing so, the state was well within its rights. But South Carolina also has a responsibility to make sure its reading and writing standards are strong, clear and rigorous. And on that count it fell short.

Academic standards are the foundation upon which much of public education rests. They dictate the knowledge and skills that students are expected to master, grade by grade, and communicate those expectations to educators, parents, curriculum writers and other stakeholders. That's why we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have been reviewing state standards for over 20 years: These benchmarks shape much of what students do and learn during the school year now underway.

In our most recent review, which we published last month, our team of subject-matter experts conferred a score of 6 out of 10 on South Carolina's English language arts standards, earning them an overall rating of "weak." That means that, in our view, the standards should be significantly revised, and the sooner the better.

It was encouraging to hear the reaction to our findings from chairman of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee Neil C. Robinson Jr., who said that the agency would review the standards because of the Fordham report. He said, "I have asked for a review of the ELA standards, based on the results of this report. If there are foundational issues with the standards and the supporting documents provided to teachers, we have to act sooner rather than later. Stronger standards are better for our students."

One of the main problems with South Carolina's benchmarks is that they fail to require that students be familiar with or knowledgeable about any specific works of literature, authors or historical documents (such as "1984," Shakespeare or the Declaration of Independence). That means that what students are required to read is left to an individual teacher's discretion.

In 2015, Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, a vocal opponent of Common Core, said that having recommended texts was the "most offensive" part of the Common Core since that discouraged American exceptionalism - hence their removal in the new standards. As fellow conservatives, we beg to differ. In fact, leaving text selections completely up to teachers fails to ensure that all students are exposed to equally rigorous and engaging material across classrooms. And more broadly, it ignores the importance of shared knowledge in a democracy.

A related problem is the absence of clear guidance in several grade levels regarding the types of texts that students should be reading. Without such guidance, questions around equity and access inevitably arise, as what is considered "grade-level appropriate" in one school or district may be vastly different from what is read and discussed in another. As a result, graduates in South Carolina will struggle to comprehend college-level and workforce-relevant reading material that is far more complex than what many of them are currently reading in high school.

Finally, the standards are repetitive. The best standards differentiate expectations across each grade level so that teachers understand the incremental growth of knowledge and skills that are expected.

However, in certain areas (like some of the literacy standards in grades 3-5), South Carolina's standards are repeated verbatim for multiple grade levels.

Fortunately, these shortcomings are fixable, and policymakers should act now: Designate specific texts at all grade levels with which students should be familiar (or at minimum, provide "exemplar" texts for teacher consideration). Provide teachers guidance within the standards about how to choose materials that are appropriate for a particular grade level. Revise standards that are repeated verbatim for multiple grade levels.

"I like that it is written by South Carolinians for South Carolinians to be used in the public schools of South Carolina," Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, remarked when South Carolina enacted its current reading standards. "We think the new standards are more rigorous than what our students have right now."

That first part is true, but the second part isn't. The standards that South Carolina had before were better than what they have now. Here's hoping that policymakers in South Carolina fix that.

Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli are senior vice president and president, respectively, at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.