Grading the school report cards: South Carolina gets a C+

December 7, 2018

Official report cards for individual South Carolina schools have been around since 2001, but due to the challenges of merging state and federal accountability systems, this resource has not been available since 2014. That means for roughly the last three years parents have been able to find advice on every whim—from vacation spots (TripAdvisor) to Mexican restaurants (Yelp) to movies (IMDB)—but not for perhaps the most important decision a parent will ever make for their child: what school he or she should attend. For that reason, we should say at the outset that it is quite a relief that school ratings are finally available.

But just how useful are the new report cards? For us, it all comes down to how Excellence is defined.

But first, let’s get up to speed. When federal legislation known as ESSA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) was passed three years ago this month, it strengthened the requirements of the previous Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and No Child Left Behind on the content of annual state and school report cards. Among those statistics specifically required were: performance metrics for students and schools, educator qualifications, per-pupil expenditures, and other accountability measures. States were free to add other data they felt pertinent to providing parents a clear picture of the schools for which their child was zoned.

When the legislature took up the issue of state report cards, there was a bit of a tussle. Palmetto Promise Institute and a number of the members of the Senate and House Education committees thought schools should be rated just like students are graded: A-F and on a 100-point scale. In general, we thought report cards should be low on fluff and high on rigor. As it turned out, as is too often the case in public policy, a compromise was struck. Schools would be graded on a 100-point scale, but not with A-B-C-D-F. Instead of A-F, schools would be rated in the same manner as in the past: Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average, or Unsatisfactory. What would constitute Excellent was a bit of a mystery, but at least the scale would be an easily understandable 0-100.

With the release of the report cards, we now know what Excellent means: somewhere between 56 and 67 depending on the grade level. That’s right. For a high school to receive a rating of Excellent, it could receive a grade of only 61. For a middle school only 56, and for an elementary school only 67. That’s out of 100 points. Turns out the state law mentioned earlier had a 100-pointscale but said nothing about basing ratings on 10-point increments (90-100 A, 80-89 B, etc.)!

Why these odd numbers? The reason for this is the percentage of schools that would fall in the five levels was set in advance: 15% of the schools would automatically receive an overall rating of Excellent, 15% Good, 35% Average, 20% Below Average and 10% Unsatisfactory. These percentages were set based on South Carolina’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2015.

If schools had been graded on a 100-point scale in ten-point increments, very few would have received a grade of Excellent. Three schools to be exact.

The bottom line is this:

  • The new report cards feature important data about your child’s school in ten key areas (seven of which use ratings, this in addition to the Overall rating). We encourage you to use these resources to learn more and to ask questions.
  • Having report cards for individual schools for the first time since 2014 is a significant step forward.
  • For the grading of a school to be useful to parents and the community, the standard for a grade of Excellent in particular needs objective rigor. It should not be based on a fixed percentage of schools set in advance.

Our new accountability system sets a high bar, and the Report Card as a whole is informative, but the Overall grade includes a generous curve. To us here at Palmetto Promise Institute that doesn’t seem fair to our students and disguises many of our system’s challenges.