Death to PACT bill has local support

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By Jesef Williams

The standardized test that South Carolina students have been taking over the last several years may soon be a thing of the past.

Last week, the state House voted unanimously on a bill to do away with the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test, which was created in response to the state's 1998 Education Accountability Act.

The "Death to the PACT" bill moved to the state Senate this week.

PACT, which is administered to students in third- through eighth-grade each spring, is South Carolina's primary end-of-year standardized test. Results from the exam help determine school report card ratings and serve as a measure of how the Palmetto state ranks against others in the nation.

Educators, though, say the test is given too late in the school year and doesn't provide detailed information about areas in which the student excels or struggles.

State Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-District 45, said lawmakers have heard the complaints loud and clear.

"It offered no real insight. It didn't help us do what we need to do "which is educate the kids," Mulvaney said. "PACT has been a waste of the taxpayers' money and teachers' time."

Under this new legislation, a new multiple-choice test called the Elementary and Middle School Assessment Program, would give schools feedback in days instead of months.

If enacted, schools would start using the new test in 2010.

Lancaster County School District Superintendent Dr. Gene Moore believes the removal of PACT would benefit the local education community.

"It will give teachers, principals and school districts better information about students to help them and target the areas that need improvement," Moore said.

"Getting information back in a more timely manner, I think, is important," he said. "I certainly hope that it moves forward."

The new test, which hasn't been designed yet, may borrow from the framework of tests used in other states, Mulvaney said. The key would be making sure it stays in line with requirements set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

State Rep. Jimmy Neal, D-District 44, said the new test would carry the rigorous PACT standards that have been regarded as some of the toughest in the nation. The scoring labels, though, would be changed.

On PACT, students are graded as either "below basic," "basic," "proficient" and "advanced." The labels on the new test would be "exemplary," "met" and "not met."

"Met" would be considered performing on grade level for federal standards. With PACT, that passing score is "basic," which reports suggest is equal to "proficient" in other states.

"We didn't want to do anything to water down our accountability system," Neal said.

The writing portion of the test would be taken months earlier than the other sections to give ample time for scoring. The state would also be required to pay for at least two practice tests for students during the year. The state now only covers some of the cost for practice tests.

The House has been discussing revising PACT for several years.

"A lot of hard work has been put into trying to find a better way to deal with our accountability system," Neal said.

Under the proposal, the new test would be re-evaluated after five years to gauge its effectiveness instead of after 10 years, which is now the set time between reviews.

"This was the first step," Mulvaney said about the bill's passage last week. "The key is going to be picking the new test. I think we have all learned our lesson from PACT."

Contact Jesef Williams at 283-1152 or jwilliams@thelancasternews.com