SC Education: Falling Further Behind in Math & Below Average in Reading

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South Carolina’s scores on standardized mathematics tests of elementary and middle-school students over the past 10 years have declined, making the state one of the nation’s poorest performers in that regard.

The National Center for Education Statistics recently released its state-by-state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in math and reading for fourth- and eighth-grade students for 2015. The center’s database also includes scores for tests on those core subjects for years dating back two decades.

NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores

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An analysis of the data by South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center for the period of 2005 to 2015 show South Carolina students’ progress on mathematics scores is dismal compared with pupils nationally:

  • South Carolina’s average score on math tests administered to eighth-grade public school students declined by five points to 276 points, a decrease of about two percent over the 10-year period, ranking its change dead last among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. (The scores for NAEP exams in both math and reading are reported on a 500-point scale.) South Carolina was one of only five states showing a decline. Nationally, math scores for eighth-graders improved by about 1 percent to 282 points over the 10-year period.
  • The state’s average score on math among fourth-grade students declined from 238 in 2005 to 237 in 2015. South Carolina’s change tied for sixth-worst nationally, and it is one of only 11 states whose scores fell.

South Carolina’s students performed better on reading tests. Among eighth-graders the average score increased by three points over the 10-year period to 260 in 2015, which ranked the state’s improvement the 25th best. South Carolina’s average score is below the national average of 265.

Among fourth-graders, the average score on reading increased by five points to 218, which ranked 21st best nationally. The national average is 223.

Many southern states have drastically improved their reading test scores in recent years. Between 2005 and 2015, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia all showed improvements on fourth-grade reading that was greater than South Carolina’s improvement.

First administered in 1969, NAEP is the largest continuing and nationally representative assessment of what our country’s students know and can do in core subjects. NAEP reports are used by policymakers, state and local educators, principals, teachers, and parents to inform discussions about education.

A representative sampling of students, rather than the entire population of students, take the math and reading tests, which are administered every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders. In 2015, more than 275,000 students nationally took the tests.

The South Carolina Legislature has received criticism for its failure to increase funding to improve the quality of the state’s schools.

An analysis in May by South Carolina Appleseed showed that South Carolina’s regular public school districts received less financial support per student on an inflation-adjusted basis in 2013-2014 than they did five years earlier. Support declined most severely in those districts ranking highest on a state education poverty index, despite a 2014 SC Supreme Court decision specifically mandating the state provide adequate funding for these districts.

“These test scores show that in South Carolina we continue to leave behind our own students,” says Sue Berkowitz, SC Appleseed Director. “We must implement sound fiscal spending to ensure our greatest resource—our children—get the chance they deserve.”

S.C. Appleseed’s analysis showed that after adjusting for inflation, total funding per pupil from all sources – state, federal and local — declined by three percent for South Carolina schools from FY 2008-2009 to FY 2013-2014. State funding, which accounts for almost half of schools’ revenues, fell the most, down by six percent. Federal funding declined almost two percent, and local, district-level funding was flat.

While those numbers are bleak, the statistics are more depressing for South Carolina’s districts with the largest proportions of students living in poverty. In the five-year period, per pupil inflation-adjusted funding from the state declined collectively by 14.7 percent for the 15 districts ranking highest on the S.C. Education Oversight Committee’s poverty index. The committee’s index is a composite of the percent of students in each district who are eligible for Medicaid services and/or those who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.


Analysis by Mike Compton
Mike Compton is a volunteer with SC Appleseed. He has 40 years of experience in the news industry, including journalism, research, and financial analysis.