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Hello McFly, One More Time: South Carolina's 1998 Standards Push

In this week's edition of Education Week, I wrote about South Carolina's adoption and implementation of new standards intended to replace the Common Core State Standards. But one of my editors here, Kathleen Manzo, beat me to a similar story by about 17 years. Let's go back in time!

In November 1998, Manzo wrote a story about the new focus Palmetto State K-12 officials were putting on accountability. As she wrote at the time, that year lawmakers approved the Education Accountability Act that was designed to pinpoint school performance using a battery of standardized tests. This change was designed in part to give the state's new academic standards "some teeth" by attaching rewards and punishments for schools based on their students' performance on these exams. And it made teachers and schools very nervous.

"I'm in panic mode," said Terri Butts, a 3rd grade elementary school teacher.

The changes highlighted in the 1998 story were, in turn, rooted in education initiatives from former Gov. Richard Riley in the 1980s—by the time Manzo wrote her story, Riley was serving as U.S. secretary of education. As governor, Riley increased funding for schools and also introduced basic skills tests, which students took for the first time in 1981. These moves were generally deemed "inadequate" at the time but led to the increased focus on testing as a key element of South Carolina education policy.

Today, testing is again a subject of anxiety in South Carolina schools. The state doesn't yet have a test aligned to the new standards it just adopted. It remains to be seen if schools will know what test will be given when the 2015-16 school year begins later this year.

Transitions Now and Then

The major effort by the state education department in 1998 to prepare schools for the changes also has at least an echo this year, as the state department releases guidance on how schools can shift to the new standards (which are closely aligned in many ways to the common core). 

In a broader K-12 context, South Carolina's activities were among several praised by supporters of standards, such as Matthew Gandal of Achieve, one of the groups that later became instrumental to the common core. Gandal said back in 1998 that states that agreed to make standards truly count through strong accountability measures would ensure that standards wouldn't be just "another fad."

But this transition in 1998 was difficult in many schools. Some of the most challenging work was ensuring that teachers' curricula around the state matched these standards. The director of the state's office of assessment, Susan Agruso, said preparing teachers for this standards-related work was a "mind-boggling task" and added: "It's getting it into the classroom that is making us crazy."

This year, a shift to grade-by-grade standards isn't a concern. But the state has said that roughly a quarter of districts still have a lot of work to do to make sure they're implementing the new standards properly.

And one other thing ran through the state's K-12 debate back in 1998: South Carolina's position as a laggard in academic performance. As then-state chief Barbara Nielsen said at the time: "If you are running for dog catcher in this state, you talk about how bad the schools are."

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