Pandemic produces multiple dilemmas in yearly student testing in Sumter, Lee, Clarendon counties: scores show students falling behind; lack of participation is also a factor


As expected given the prolonged pandemic, state and area public school students struggled in the core subjects on last year's standardized tests, but another dilemma faces some districts -- low student participation rates.

The state Department of Education released on Wednesday its 2020-21 state report card results showing drops in achievement and also in the number of students who actually took the tests, and state and Sumter School District officials spoke to The Sumter Item on Thursday.

Only three of the five area districts last school year had more than 70% of students take SC Ready, the state's yearly assessment for students in grades 3 through 8, and high school end-of-course assessments. Those included the former Clarendon School District 3 in Turbeville with a 95.4% participation rate, the former Clarendon School District 1 in Summerton at 81.5% and Sumter at 73.4%. Lee County School District's student testing participation rate was 56.2%, and Clarendon School District in Manning stood at 37.7%, one of the lowest rates in the state. The state student average for participating in testing was 87.9%.

SC Ready scores in English/language arts and math dropped for students statewide and among the three area districts with at least 70% participation. Dips in scores were worse in math than English.

Across the state in 2021, only 42.6% of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations for English/language arts, and 37.3% of students met expectations in math.

As expected, the results showed students across the state found themselves struggling to achieve under the pandemic's added stress.

Many area students, and a considerable number statewide, participated in virtual learning from home for most of the school year and only returned to full-time, in-person learning for the final six to eight weeks of the year.

Of the three area districts, Clarendon 3 had the highest scores, even though still below state averages.

Math achievement was also low in the state and in the area on the Algebra I end-of-course assessment, according to the data. English achievement did improve statewide and in the three area districts on the English I end-of-course test, but that was one of the few bright spots in the data.

With the initial spread of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, the state waived assessments for the 2019-20 school year. In 2020-21, the state Department of Education also submitted a waiver, but it was denied by the U.S. Department of Education.

"The Department of Education said 'no' to our waiver," said Derek Phillips, a spokesman for the state department, "but they granted us that flexibility of if a family didn't deem it safe to go into the buildings to take the test, they would not be penalized.

"While, yes, we certainly encouraged families to get their child into school to take the test because it still was important to have this data to analyze, they cannot be faulted or penalized if they felt it was unsafe to do."

Phillips said there was a correlation in districts that operated virtually longer in 2020-21 and lower test participation rates.

Sumter School District was one of the final districts in the state to return to five-day, in-person learning in the spring.

District Executive Director of Academics Jade McLeod said she was pleased the district reached a 73.4% testing participation rate.

"Considering the large number of students who remained virtual for most of the year, having over 70% participation is a step in the right direction, particularly considering the circumstances around the pandemic," she said. "The indicator clearly displays that our community and our students value education and recognize the importance of participation while testing."