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SC high schoolers face reading challenges after underperforming on state tests

S.C. Dept. of Education data from as far back as 2016 shows students from 3rd to 8th grade falling behind on standardized tests that measure reading comprehension.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Science, math and reading are at the foundation of education and for South Carolina students at least one of those areas is facing major challenges.

S.C. Department of Education (SCDE) data from as far back as 2016 shows students from third to eighth grade are falling behind in standardized tests that measure reading comprehension year-after-year.

SCDE leaders say some need intensive remediation to get back up to speed.

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Still, students are able to progress to the next grade with district and state leaders working to find a solution.

"It's not that they can't read, it's they have a difficult time comprehending what they're reading," Dr. David Mathis, Deputy Superintendent of College and Career Readiness with SCDE, said.

His office oversees standards and literacy for students across the state.

"In high school, often times their textbooks are very dense. They're very long passages to read and perhaps not all that engaging," Dr. Mathis said, "and so as they struggle, that escalates the problem."

The South Carolina College and Career Ready Assessments, or SC READY, measure progress in English Language Arts, including reading, writing and communication.

The test is required by federal law, but in 2021 parents could opt-out.

So, News19 looked at numbers from 2019.

Still, more than half of rising South Carolina high schoolers underperformed.

"The students that are suffering the most are those who were behind prior to the pandemic.... I think it's statewide especially in underserved areas," Dr. Mathis said. "It just didn't happen in high school. It has started in that building phase."

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Some of the lowest scores in the Midlands in 2019 were at schools in Lee, Lexington and Orangeburg counties.

Patrick Kelly with the Palmetto State Teachers Association, one of the largest associations for educators in the state, says a student's home environment or how they feel when they take the test can play a role in the result.

"There are factors beyond schooling that impact student achievement," Kelly said. "Factors like access to text during early childhood, around poverty."

Academic words and phrases may also stump learners, the SCDE said, but districts like Lexington-Richland Five are working to find a solution.

"You really are talking about something that's going to have a potential lifelong impact," Joe Eberlin, Assistant Principal for Instruction at Dutch Fork High School, said. "It's not so much the actual ability to read, it's more of that comprehension piece. It's more of the stamina ...to sit for 10 -15 minutes on one reading passage can be a challenge."

They're piloting a new literacy program to work on reading stamina and confidence.

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"We often see fewer students needing the course in the second year," Eberlin said.

SCDE said disparities that exist across South Carolina have contributed to the years-long reading comprehension issue.

As for grade progression, students move forward based on coursework, not standardized test scores. Though, Dr. Mathis said the coursework should meet state standards.

"We hope it does, in a lot of cases it may not because teachers are overwhelmed, I think, with the depth that they have to go to," Dr. Mathis said.

They're looking at ways to adjust the standards to allow for more learning time with the hope of increasing student performance.

"As we're rewriting our standards we're going to have fewer standards so that teachers can go deeper," Dr. Mathis said.

The rewriting process has been underway for a little over a year and SCDE hopes to have those for English Language Arts available for public review in the fall.

At that time, they will accept feedback from parents, teachers and other stakeholders before the standards are finalized.

It's a strategy Kelly, who is also a high school teacher, said could be helpful.

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"... by allowing them to dive deeper into their learning instead of having to skim through things at a surface level," Kelly said. "I think we also need to create a more holistic assessment regimen beyond a simple one-time, high stakes test."

Dr. Mathis said families can help too.

"Become involved," he said. "Go to the school and talk to the principal, the guidance counselor, the teacher and ask clearly how is my child succeeding are there things I can do at home to help."

He added that the SCDE is working to provide additional resources and training to districts to help.

Those who would like to review the state, district and school-level data for SC READY can do so by clicking here.

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