Drop in South Carolina test scores among nation’s worst

April 12, 2018

Ellen Weaver

Former President & CEO

Southerners know the wisecrack that comes up whenever talking about some less-than-stellar state statistic: “Thank goodness for Mississippi.”

Sadly, South Carolina’s education system just lost that excuse.

On April 10, the National Center for Education Statistics released its 2017 results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” this test is a powerful tool that allows an apples-to-apples comparison of public education achievement across states. While there were a few bright spots among states that have pursued bold, student-centered reforms, overall results nationwide were largely stagnant.

South Carolina lost ground. Here are four important findings for the Palmetto State:

  • Overall, South Carolina’s 10-point decline across all test scores was among the worst in the nation, tied with Kentucky, Oregon and Vermont. Only Louisiana (-11) and Alaska (-18) saw larger declines.
  • From 2015 to 2017, 4th grade reading scores in South Carolina saw the second-largest decline in the nation – worse than Mississippi.
  • 8th grade performance on both math and reading flatlined.
  • 4th graders showed a significant decrease in reading and math scores.

Commenting on the results, Melanie Barton, executive director of the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, noted that South Carolina public schools have not received accountability ratings for the last three years.

“As we dig into the data, we see that when the accountability system was strong in South Carolina, we were one of the fastest improving systems in the country,” she said. “Now, we are losing ground to states whom we have previously outperformed.”

Here at the Palmetto Promise Institute, we’ve been ringing the education alarm since the release of our very first report in 2013, “Transformation: What South Carolina Can Learn from Florida’s K-12 Reforms.” That groundbreaking research found that thanks to a wide range of well-implemented, student-centered reforms, Florida students had leapfrogged South Carolina students over the last 20 years.

We’ll be refreshing that report in days to come and look forward to sharing the results with you. (One spoiler: Florida led the nation in NAEP gains this year, meaning their bold reforms are still paying off for students.)


It’s important to note that telling the truth about student outcomes is not an attack on educators. South Carolina has many incredible teachers and hardworking principals who devote themselves every day to serving students well. These dedicated professionals are also harmed by the same one-size-fits-all system that’s failing too many of their students.

So where do South Carolinians go from here? We can react defensively, stick our heads in the sand and double down on more of the same.

Or we can honestly acknowledge the state’s challenges and fight for a bold education vision for the future.

With your help, that’s exactly what Palmetto Promise plans to keep doing.

We’ll continue fighting for student-centered funding reform that pushes education dollars out of bureaucracies and back into classrooms. We’ll work hard to expand access for all students to customized education options through proven ideas like Education Scholarship Accounts. And we’ll advocate for policies to empower principals and teachers to be CEOs of their schools and classrooms.

South Carolina students can achieve incredible things – if we give them the chance. There’s no time to waste: students’ lives and another generation of lost potential is on the line.

Let’s get busy.

  Source: South Carolina Education Oversight Committee