Test Scores And Graduation/ Drop-Out Rates Are Both Important 
by Alex Saitta 
January 1, 2008 
The Pickens County School District gives our children many different tests, like the ACT, SAT, PACT, HSAP, end of course tests and a few others. As a school board trustee, my responsibility is to focus on the education of all the children in our schools, so I pay more attention to the HSAP than the ACT or SAT.  
The ACT is taken in the eleventh and twelfth grade, but only about 25% of seniors choose to take the ACT. The other college entrance exam, the SAT, was taken by about 50% of graduates.  
Both the ACT and SAT are taken by those who intend to go to college, generally, those students have performed better inhigh  school. Pickens County ranked #5 in ACT, out of the 85 districts in the state. That is down from #2 in 2005-06 and #1 in 2004-05.  
In the SAT, Pickens ranked #10 in 2006-07, down from #9 in 2005-06 and #5 in 2004-05.  
Those who aren’t planning to go to college, or those who have dropped out of high school, usually do not take either test. Looking at these test results, our top high school students are in the top 5 or 10 in the state.  
Exit Exam: 
The High School Assessment Program (HSAP) exam is known as the high school exit exam to you and me. It is taken by all tenth graders. For that reason, this is the high school exam I’m most interested in.  
In 2006-07, 83.5% of tenth graders passed both subjects on the exit exam. That ranks the district 16th out of 85 districts in the state. That's down from 12th (82.6%) in 2005-06 and 10th (81.6%) in 2004-05.  
PACT Test: 
Turning to the lower grades, I focus on the PACT, because it is taken by all third through eighth grade students. It tests four subjects -- English, Math, Science and Social Studies. There are 6 grades, taking 4 tests, so you get 24 rankings. For example, fourth grade students ranked 10th out of 85 districts in the state on the Science part of the PACT test. 
When you average it all up, third through eighth grade students ranked 18th of the 85 districts in the state in 2006-07. That's up from 19th in 2005-06, but down from 16th in 2004-05.  
Report Card: 
The Report Card measures the district's performance in PACT scores, the HSAP (exit exam), attendance, and graduation rates, across ethic groups, disabled students, those on free or reduced lunches and a few other categories. The Pickens School district received an absolute rating of 3.23 or Average. This is a tough rating system, because the district ranked 15th of the 85 districts. That rating was up from 2005-06's rating of 3.1, when the district was ranked 19th. However, both are down from 2004-05, when the district's absolute rating was 3.5 and the district tied for 4th in the state. 
Test Scores Overall Ranking: 
Our school district's rankings are inconsistent, so it is difficult to identify our school district's exact rank relative to other districts in the state. Looking at the results of the tests/ criteria which considers all students -- the PACT, HSAP and the Report Card,  the district ranks some where in the top 15 to 20 in the state.   
Test Scores And Grade Level: 
When analyzing test scores across the grades, you'll see scores are stronger in elementary school, weaker in middle school and then somewhat better in high school. 
The PACT tests grades 3 through 8, so it gives you a reasonably consistent measure across three grades in elementary school and three grades in middle school. The percentage of students performing at grade level, as measured by the PACT typically falls as the grade level rises.  
For example, in 2006-07, in Math, 78.4% of 3rd graders scored at or above grade level in the state. That figure was 78.1% for 4th graders, 77.7% for 5th, 77.2% for 6th, 76.8% for 7th and 67.9% for 8th graders. As the grade goes up, the score falls. In English those figures were 85.8%, 82.7%, 77.2%, 70.9%, 69.8%, and 71.3%, respectively.  
I went back and looked at the state PACT scores for English, Math, Science and Social Studies for the past five years, and that relationship most always is the case, so I feel the statement that scores are stronger in elementary school and weaker in middle school is valid. 
Unfortunately, the PACT test is not given in high school, so it becomes more difficult to assess how high schoolers are scoring relative to students in elementary and middle school. As mentioned above, all high schoolers take the Exit Exam (HSAP), and half take the SAT and about a quarter take the ACT.  
Having studied this data a few years now, my feeling is high school performance is better than middle school performance. Looking at the state middle school PACT scores, in some middle school grades, only about half the students are testing at grade level. The exit exam results show better performance than that, and so does the SAT. 
In my opinion, one of the reasons high school test scores are better is the students who aren't scoring well in middle school, start to drop out, and don't take the exit exam and they surely don't take the ACT and SAT. If 10% of students drop out each year, obviously it will be the failing students. Losing the bottom 10% each year, it could look like high school test scores are better than middle school, when in reality they may not be.  
Graduation and Drop-out Rates: 
The state, the our district leadership and school board can't just look at test scores like the PACT, HSAP and SAT when evaluating performance. We must also consider the graduation and drop-out rate too. Thankfully, the state is starting to do that now. We have a major drop-out problem in this state, and it is a problem in Pickens, but to much lesser of an extent.  
The graduation and drop-out rate are two different things. The on-time graduation rate, or the gradation rate for short, is the percentage of students who complete high school in four years. In 2006-07, 75.4% of students finished high school in four years in Pickens County. The rest either finished it over the summer, dropped out or will finish it in five years. The graduation rate fell from 78.6% in 2005-06. The rate was 77.8% in 2004-05.   
The drop-out rate is the percentage of high school students who quit high school in a given year. In 2006-07, the high school drop out rate in Pickens County was 5.6%. That is up from 3.2% in 2005-06, and about unchanged from 2004-05's rate of 5.5%. Our high schools in Pickens County are losing about 20% of their students over four years, due to drop-out.  
Test Scores And Graduation/ Drop-Out Rates Are Both Important: 
Test scores are important. I agree they gauge how well the typical student knows the material. Sure, I've known the material and didn't do well on the test, but that didn't occur much. I was anywhere from an F student in 2nd grade to a A student in my final year, and I can tell you this, I never did well on a test, when I didn't know the material.  
We need to teach our children the best we can, and they'll do well on standardized test, but we must also work to improve the graduation and drop-out rates. Both measures are equally important when evaluating the job we are doing.  
A Slide:  
Pickens County's ranking on the PACT scores rebounded from 19th to 18th in 2006-07, but the district's rank on the PACT has slipped from 13th four years ago. In the exit exam, the district was 16th in the state, and that is down from 9th four years ago. The graduation rate is the lowest it has been in four years, and the drop-out rate is the highest it has been in four years. 
The school district is slipping. Too many students are falling behind in middle school, and then not graduating on time or are dropping out. 
What is causing the problem? That's the $64,000 question.  
First I have to give the Superintendent credit for recognizing the district is slipping. When I first noticed this trend in early 2005, and presented it to the board at a public meeting, the figures were greeted with denial. The trend is now clearer, so the district office now recognizes the problem.  
District Office's Solution: 
The district office is full of educators, so naturally they see the problem as curriculum problem. As a result, the district office's solution is to improve the curriculum, make significant technology upgrades, building many more and newer classrooms and improve the testing methods of students. Last year the school district raised spending more than 16%, with most of that money going toward their “curriculum solution” and the rest being eaten up by the bureaucracy.  
Will there be a 16% improvement in academic results? No. Will there be anything close to that? I doubt it.  
Why? I don't think the district office completely sees or understands the problem. When you go to a surgeon, and show him your problem, likely his solution will be to operate. He went to school for surgery and has fixed most all the problems that came his way with surgery, so he has that perspective. That may not be the right solution, though, or the best way to spend your money.  
Naturally as test scores and the graduation rate has faltered in Pickens County, the district office's solution has been to improve the curriculum, upgrade the classroom technology and provide better classroom facilities -- they are providing a "curriculum solution".  
That may help, but I don't think that is the root of the problem. My fear is the district is going to spend a boat load of money on this “curriculum solution”, and in the end, it won't have significant academic gains to show for it.  
Appropriate Behavior And Winning Values: 
I think the main cause of the academic slide, is not the curriculum, but the declining behavior of many students and more students valuing education less and less, especially, after they reach middle and high school.  
At a Christmas party I attended, I spoke to a group of five or six middle school students and asked them what was important to them? As they were talking, it became clear their focus was on their girlfriends, their flat iron or the band Slipknot. Only one said, I'm going to get good grades in school, get into a good college and go on to be this or that.  
Like I wrote about in this write-up (click here), teens have become a profitable demographic for retailers. Retailers have got the full court press on teens today, so when students reach middle school many become consumed with their cellphone, their myspace page, the Aeropostale clothes line or the latest American Idol’s hairdo. Naturally, education drops down their totem pole of what’s important. Additionally, the behavior of many students isn't what it was 10 or 15 years ago, because of the breakdown in the family, and what they are watching on TV when they are unsupervised. Both are combining to make it harder and harder to teach students and this is the main reason for the academic slide in Pickens County, in my opinion.  
I don't think the district office understands this change in the student culture that has been taking place, and if they do, they aren't addressing it.  
If it was up to me, I'd spend much less time and money on the district's "curriculum solution". Instead I'd focus on teaching the students appropriate behavior, character and the value of a good education.   
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