Latest Report Card Stats 2017 
by Alex Saitta 
March 12, 2018 
 
Introduction: 
I recently read a couple of articles where the school board chairman and district administrators were talking about the recent improvements in the district and how all is going great. In particular the rising graduation rate, more taking Advanced Placement courses and turning Central and McKissick elementary into magnet schools. 
 
Those in charge always say things are improving and going wonderfully. The reality is some things are getting better in the school district, some have not changed and some things are getting worse. To get a true overall picture, you have to look at results, not new initiatives (which there are plenty to always tout). And you must look at the results that incubus all students and not just cherry pick the good results or ignore problems or things getting worse.   
 
Graduation Rate:  
The graduation rate includes all students, it is still inching up and it is a gauge that should get close scrutiny. The graduation rate has risen to 84.0%, that is up from 71.2% in 2010. Bravo.  
 
What they are not telling you is the percentage of students reading at grade level on average peaked in 2008 at 82.8% and fell to 79.3% in 2016. That is, the graduation has gone up significantly, but reading scores didnít increase, but actually fell.  
 
This begs the question, is the higher graduation rate indicative of improving academic performance or is the system just pushing more students through?   
 
I probably wouldnít have said anything about this, but recently the board has set a goal of a 95% graduation rate. Something tells me they are going to get it. But again, how much will academic performance improve when they do? In the light of this, instead of setting a goal of a 95% graduation rate, the board/ administration should be look closely at the extra students who are now graduating and determine if they are truly making the grade.     
 
SC Ready - SC PASS:  
When looking at academic performance, I focus on the standard tests all students take. The board is tasked with educating all students, so we should look at the test all students must take.   
 
That leaves out things like the SAT, which only the brightest 1/3 of the students take. The district also cited more students are taking advanced placement courses. Again that measures about the same subset of the brightest students in the system, plus how well those students are doing in those AP courses matters. No mention of that, unfortunately.  
 
All third to eighth grade students in elementary and middle school take SC Ready for English and math and 4th to 8th take SC Pass in science and social studies.  
 
The grading scale on English, math and science were changed in 2017. For instance in 2016, as I said above, 78.4% of the students read at or above grade level. With the new scale for 2017, only 41.7% are reading at grade level. What happened? I was told they are measuring students vertically (individual growth from grade to grade) as opposed to horizontally (versus other students in that grade). Thatís true, but this higher threshold and hence lower percentages across the state is probably due to putting the state more in line with national standards. SC has ranked at or near the bottom nationally, so if this is indeed what is occurring, it explains why our percentages of students at grade level are lower on this new scale.  
 
In Math, 47.1% are at or above grade level. In Science 52.9% are at or above grade level.    
In Social Studies, they are still using the old threshold (that changes over in 2019) and 75.7% were at or above grade level.  
 
Overall in these four subjects and in those six elementary and middle school grades the SDPC ranked 19th out of 82 districts in our state. Our ranking has fluctuated from 15th to 24th the past ten years.  
 
ACT - Work Keys:  
In high school all students take the ACT, as well as Work Keys. On the ACT students scored 18.7, down a bit from last year, but we are 8th in the state. Of note, Liberty High has shown improvement surpassing Pickens High.  
 
Daniel: 20.5  
Easley: 18.4  
Liberty 18.0 
Pickens: 17.8  
 
On Work Keys, 88.5% scored Bronze or higher (down from last year), but that was 13th in the state.    
 
Iíve been recording all-students in the district test results in elementary, middle and high about 15 years now. Overall, results rose a bit during the 2004 to 2010 period and have come down a bit since then. Despite all the promises about the new school buildings, massive technology and countless new reading initiatives there hasnít been improvement overall.  
 
Percentage Spending In Classroom: 
Below is the percentage of total spending that makes it to the classroom in our school district according to the report card put out by the South Carolina Department of Education. You can see the trend, and it is not good.  
 
2008: 59.5% 
2009: 58.4% 
2010: 58.4% 
2011: 59.0% 
2012: 60.0% 
2013: 59.0% 
2014: 58.4% 
2015: 55.7% 
2016: 54.4% 
2017: 53.4% 
 
As I alluded to above, spending has been rising but results flat-lining. Why? I think there are a lot of reasons. The percentage of spending making it to the classroom has been declining for years now. As I mentioned, test results peaked around 2010 or so. And today they are lower, one reason I think is how the focus has shifted from the classroom to the system. Superintendents come in a few shapes and sizes. Some are curriculum leaders first and foremost. For example, Dr. Kelly Pew focused on academic rigor, having principals in place who were educational leaders and putting money in the classroom in terms of technology and lower class sizes. Pew would rather do a classroom observation than lead a meeting on the design of a new building.  
 
Some superintendents are system administrators first and foremost. That is how I saw Dr. Danny Merck. His focus is on expanding building capacity, redrawing school lines or having enough activity buses ó managing the support system. In my opinion, heíd rather lead a meeting on the design of a new building than do a classroom observation. I said it at the time, and I think these numbers now show, from the Pew to Merck transition the district lost some of its academic focus. And this spending figures bear that out. A higher percentage of the money is going to the system, and a lower percentage to the classroom than before. 
 
Number of Teachers:  
Further confirming that point, the number of teachers in the district fell to 1,008 or the lowest since Iíve been pulling this figure off the report card (15 years now). This is the result of the superintendent recommending and the board voting to cut classroom teaching positions over the past few years (all of which I voted against).   
 
When Dr. Merck came out with his five year plan in November 2014, it had a variety of priorities, three were closing schools, cutting classroom teachers (raising class sizes) and raising tax rates. And this is what the administration is doing. They closed two schools and were looking to close more, but the public had had enough. Class sizes are rising and theyíve raised tax rates now three times in a row.  
 
The philosophy as told to me by a lead administrator was we will hire better teachers, pay them more and the larger class sizes will not harm academic results. 
 
Teacher Turnover Rate: 
I donít think this is working and the larger work load among other things is resulting in higher teacher turnover (10.6% the past year) and that is the highest it has been looking back 15 years.  
 
You first you have to understand teachers choose teaching in the first place. Teachers get into teaching for many reasons, but one of the primary reasons is they desire/ want/ longing for the freedom to teach children in their classroom as they see fit. To keep them attracted and motivated, don't screw around with that. If you do,  and do it excessively, it kills morale. Unfortunately the bureaucracy from Columbia down to the district office/ school boards around the state is grinding that in the classroom freedom out of the system, telling teachers what to teach, how long to teach it, when to teach it, and how to test it all. And administrators are looking over their shoulders, observing and evaluating every bit of the way to make sure each teacher is doing exactly as told. Plus they are running teachers through all this training, and more training.  
I read in the paper the chairman and superintendent are worried about a teacher shortage. Understandable. What they don't realize is how much the actions of the leadership is contributing to the shortage 
.   
Survey:  
Each year the state department of education surveys teachers and parents how three issues at each school. Are you satisfied with the learning environment, the physical environment and school-home relations?   
 
This data further supports my point. Looking at the latest survey taken in January 2017, 85.4% of teachers were satisfied with the learning environment at their school, 89.7% were satisfied with the social or physical environment, and 85.8% were happy about the school-home relations at their school. That averages to 87.0% or the lowest figure since I have been putting these figures off the report cards the past ten years. That average was 89.3% (2016) 93.0% (2015), 93.3% (2014), 91.9% (2013), 93.0 (2012), 91.9% (2011), 91.9% (2010), 91.1% (2009) and 91.6% (2008).   
 
And this decline in morale is in the face of some of the highest teacher pay raises in more than ten years.  
 
Making matters worse, the children are getting harder to teach. Give me a child who wants to learn and parents who are on the education team, and that child will get a good education in Pickens County schools. My two children are proof, both going to Pickens High, ďAĒ students and getting a good education. 
 
Children need correct values, morals, structure, boundaries and consequences. Too often that is missing from the parentsí playbook. It is spilling into our classrooms. This is wearing more on our teachers.  
 
Magnet Schools? 
I was asked what I thought about McKissick becoming a STEM school and Central becoming an Arts school. At McKissick only 35% of the students read at grade level.    
 
Why not make McKissick a magnet school that focuses on reading like this new charter school, Lakes & Bridges? Reading is fundamental. Not engineering.  
 
This magnet school idea is the latest and greatest things the school leadership is enamored with. Before it was building fancy buildings, then installing gee-wiz technology and then all these dual credit and advanced placement courses. None of which improved academic performance overall in core subjects. How about this for a new initiative. Do all you can to enhance the student teacher relationships, refocus on core subjects and getting every student up to snuff there.  
  
The district administration and school board is running over that school and most of the employees in it. Whatever benefits come from this will be outweighed by the decline in overall morale in the district.  
 
Voting With Their Feet? 
The closing of AR Lewis and Holly Springs had some grave consequences the administration/ board do not want to talk about. In 2015-16 the five elementary schools in the Pickens area had 1,348 students. In 2017-18 only 1,264 students are in the three remaining schools. Thatís 84 students less and it is not that they went to surrounding schools. Enrollment at Dacusville, Liberty and Six Mile elementary schools is unchanged over that time. Parents voted with their feet and left.  
 
With the opening of the charter school (Youth Leadership Academy), it showed -- when parents have a choice, they often take it.   
 
Chairman Brian Swords recently said the school district is now going in the right direction. Many of these figures like reading scores, money spent in the classroom, teacher numbers and morale and falling enrollment say otherwise.  
 
The true test will be how well the new charter school Lakes & Bridges does. Will they have trouble wooing students away from the school district? Or will they fill up their classrooms in short order? The school opens in Easley in August.