2010 PASS Results Expose Deeper Problems 
By Alex Saitta 
August 10, 2010 
 
Introduction: 
The school board is reviewing Dr. Huntís performance for the past year. I gave him a high grade. He has faced two difficult challenges: the building program and the budget. Dr. Stewart and then Dr. Hunt inherited a building program whose cost had risen to $450 million while there was only $365 budgeted for the plan. Bob Folkman, Jim Shelton and Dr. Hunt have done a good job of reigning in the program and have it moving forward. 
 
Concerning the budget, Dr. Hunt made some tough decisions. While he didnít make enough structural changes in how the district is organized and functions (heíll need to in order to deal with future deficits), he did more than most would have in cutting the budget down so it is at least temporarily in balance.  
 
Dr. Hunt faces two major problems that need to be addressed.  
 
One, when Dr. D'Andrea took over in 2006, she replaced the leadership in the curriculum department and set a new direction. After replacing the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, beefing up the curriculum department, and spending loads of money on new initiatives, it is clear those initiatives are not working.  
 
Since 2006, those passing the High School Exit Exam on the first attempt fell from 82.6% to 79.7%; the drop rate rose from 3.2% to 5.5%; the graduation rate fell from 78.6% to 72.6%; End of Course results for English, Math and Science are down. In 2006 students took the PACT. Now they take the PASS, so it is difficult to determine the change over time. Looking at the two years students have taken the PASS, the results are down.  
 
The second problem is the communications department doesn't communicate with the public, but rather it promotes the district. The department regularly cherry picks the good news and broadcasts that, and often stifles the bad news. This happened again when the district office reported the 2010 PASS scores last week. 
 
The public and the press are wise to how the communications department is run, and this is one of the main reasons public trust of the school district and school board is so low.  
 
Both the curriculum and communications are glaring when you examine the 2010 PASS scores and the district office press release.   
 
2010 PASS Scores: 
Six grades take the PASS and each grade is tested in five subjects. Thus, there are 30 grade/subject measures.  
 
There are 3 possible scores a student could earn. 
 
Below Grade Level: A student can score below grade level.  
 
At Or Above Grade Level: A student can score above grade level. 
 
These two percentages will sum to 100%. For example, in fourth grade Science 21.1% of the students scored below grade level and 78.9% scored at or above grade level. 
 
Exemplary: Within the At Or Above Grade Level group, there is a subset call Exemplary or the students who score the highest. 
 
Back to our fourth grade Science example, 21.1% scored below grade level, 60.3% were above grade level, but didn't score exemplary and 18.6% scored Exemplary or above. 60.3% + 18.6% gives you the 78.9% that scored at At Or Above Grade Level.  
 
Which Test Results To Focus On? 
The school district's responsibility is to educate all the students and that is how the district should be judged. 
 
For example, only 45% of high school students take the SAT. All high schoolers must take the High School Exit Exam. While it is nice to know how much college bound students have learned, we have to educate all the students, so focusing on the test that tests all high school students is most important. That is the Exit Exam.  
 
The same logic applies when examining the PASS results. To see how all the students are doing, the measure to focus on is the percentage that scored at or above grade level. After all, the goal of every teacher is to teach every student to the grade level in that subject, so the student will be promoted to the next grade the following year. 
 
The Results: 
The table below lists the percentage that scored at or above grade level for each grade and subject for 2009 and 2010. 
 
For example, In 2010 80.4% of the fifth graders scored at or above grade level in writing. That is, 19.6% scored below grade level.  
 
Looking at the data overall, six grades take the PASS and 5 subjects are tested in each grade, so there are 30 grade/ subject measures. In 19 of the 30 grade/ subject categories (Red), the percentage of students testing at or above grade level in 2010 fell relative to 2009. It rose in only 11 (Blue). 
 
 
 
Writing
2009
2010
Grade 3
80.0%
80.2%
Grade 4
80.8%
82.2%
Grade 5
82.1%
80.4%
Grade 6
77.2%
75.9%
Grade 7
77.8%
75.4%
Grade 8
70.8%
79.8%
 
 
 
English
 
 
Grade 3
84.8%
86.6%
Grade 4
83.9%
83.3%
Grade 5
86.7%
83.0%
Grade 6
77.1%
76.7%
Grade 7
74.4%
73.8%
Grade 8
70.5%
68.7%
 
 
 
Math
 
 
Grade 3
74.6%
79.8%
Grade 4
82.6%
81.6%
Grade 5
79.7%
75.3%
Grade 6
74.8%
71.9%
Grade 7
73.5%
70.8%
Grade 8
64.9%
66.2%
 
 
 
Science
 
 
Grade 3
71.9%
74.2%
Grade 4
80.4%
78.9%
Grade 5
79.9%
73.4%
Grade 6
73.7%
72.3%
Grade 7
74.4%
76.9%
Grade 8
67.4%
72.8%
 
 
 
Social Studies
 
 
Grade 3
85.6%
84.0%
Grade 4
86.3%
83.0%
Grade 5
78.0%
71.4%
Grade 6
84.7%
82.3%
Grade 7
64.7%
65.6%
Grade 8
72.4%
75.3%
 
 
 
Average All
77.2%
76.6%
 
 
 
When you average the percentage of students who scored at or above grade level in all six grades and five subjects, only 76.6% were at or above grade level. Conversely, 23.4% of the students scored below grade level. That's down from 77.2%/ 22.8% in 2009. Given how much the at or above grade level cut score was lowered when South Carolina switched from the PACT to the PASS (read that here), this figure is very disappointing.  
 
In the core subject of English, results fell in 5 of 6 of the grades. Only third grade saw improvement in English. In the core subject of Math, results were down in 4 of 6 grades. Improvement in Math occurred in third and eighth grade only.  
 
In the past, strength was typically in the elementary grades. Middle school were usually weaker. It is alarming that there was significant weakness in fourth and fifth grade in 2010. I hope that is not the start of a trend.   
 
What The Public Wasnít Told: 
It is not surprising the district press release ignored that and other bad news in the 2010 PASS scores.  
 
Click here for the district press release on the results. The district cherry picked the data and stressed two points in their press release:  
 
1) The improvement with the exemplary students. The district wrote, ďIn 22 of 30 possible grade/ subject combinations, district percentages increased.Ē  
 
On average about 25% to 30% of the students score exemplary. By zeroing in on  exemplary performance, you narrow the focus to the brightest students, which is a small percentage of the whole. The performance of the majority of students is ignored.  
 
I believe this was done on purpose. If they would have reported the measure that considers all students (the percentages that scored below/ above grade level) for all grades, that would have been embarrassing, because the results were down.  
 
2) The second point stressed in the press release was, ď2010 PASS scores show noteworthy gains in grades 3 and 8. Both third and eighth graders showed gains in four of five subjects tested.Ē 
 
If there is such a thing as lying by omission, this would be a good example of it. Here they are looking at the percentage that scored below/ above grade level. If they looked at the third and eighth grade results, they must have looked at fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade results. Obviously, they didn't like what they saw -- those four grades were down, so they decided not to report them to the public.  
 
In fifth grade the percentage of students testing at or above grade level fell in all 5 subjects. Ditto for the 6th grade.  In fourth grade scores fell in 4 of 5 subjects. In seventh grade the percentage of students testing at or above grade level fell in 3 of 5 subjects.  
 
I can picture how the conversation might have gone between the curriculum and communications department, We are up in two grades, but down in four grades. Hmmm. That means overall we did a worse job this year. How are we going to justify our high priced salaries with that? Well, just report the two up grades, ignore the rest, and hope the board members and the press are too stupid to figure it out.  
 
I'm sorry to be so blunt, but this is so obviously misleading, and such things happen on a regular basis, I have to call it was it is. Business as usual -- misleading the board and public by omission.   
 
A Shell Game: 
Will we get better leadership in either the curriculum or communications departments?  
 
I doubt it. Last time I spoke to Dr. Hunt about this, he fully supported the direction of the curriculum department. When I've pointed to declines in the measures that consider all students like PASS, Exit Exam scores, or graduation rates, defenders in the district office and some on the board have pointed to measures that focus on small  pockets where performance has improved.  
 
Theyíll say SAT scores are up. Iíll say, thatís good, but only 45% of the high schoolers take the SAT. Those are college bound students. You are ignoring the bottom 55% that are doing worse and worse as shown by the Exit Exam which is taken by all students.   
 
Also, the percentage of our high school students taking the SAT has been falling for years now. More could be taking the ACT instead, or worse, the weaker students may be being discouraged from taking the SAT, putting the idea in their head that, If you aren't going to go to college, there is no reason to take the SAT.  By the way, in 2002, 61% of high school students in our district took the SAT. Now only 45% take it.  
 
Theyíll say one of our teachers was given the Golden Apple Award. Iíll say, is that the award WYFF4 and Bi-Lo gives teachers? Are they now education experts?  
 
Finally, theyíll point to improvements in MAP scores. That may be the case, but MAP is not how the State measures performance. The State, which is the sole judge, uses PASS to measure performance and PASS results have declined.  
 
By the way, my doubts about MAPís value are growing. MAP scores rose during the year, yet in the end the district did worse on the PASS in 2010. If the district is going to use a test during the year like MAP to help students and teachers prepare for the PASS, maybe MAP isnít a good choice.  
 
In the end, the district leadership knows it is responsible to educate all the students and they should be looking at measures that consider all the students. Unfortunately, that data is getting worse, so they put forward measures that uncover pockets of strength or some test that the State doesnít recognize that shows improvement.  
 
The People Need To Take Action: 
Donít expect improvement until the people elect school board members who feel 25% of the students below grade level is unacceptable and they insist on improvement. Donít expect the district to tell you the entire story, good and bad, until the people elect board members who demand the entire story be told.   
 
In the end, the local school board is no different than our government in Washington -- you get the government you elect.   
 
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