The Daily Journal: Oconee Legislative Delegation members discuss education reform efforts

By Greg Oliver

State Rep. Bill Whitmire, center, of Walhalla, explains efforts to revise the Education Accountability Act of 1998 — presently taking place in the South Carolina House of Representatives — as State Sen. Thomas Alexander, left, of Walhalla; and State Rep. Bill Sandifer, of Seneca, look on. The three Oconee County Legislative Delegation members discussed education issues during a luncheon with the School District of Oconee County’s Teacher Forum held Friday at the Hamilton Career Center. Photo by Greg Oliver/Staff

SENECA — Members of the Oconee County Teacher Forum were told by the legislative delegation Friday that revisions to the Education Accountability Act of 1998 (EAA), though imperfect, were a start and added that the uniform start date for schools would remain in place.

State Rep. Bill Whitmire, of Walhalla, State Rep. Bill Sandifer, of Seneca, and State Sen. Thomas Alexander, of Walhalla, addressed issues concerning the EAA and other legislative topics during a luncheon held at the Hamilton Career Center.

Whitmire, who chairs the K-12 subcommittee, said PACT testing for grades 3-8 would be eliminated under the reform and replaced by EMSAP (Elementary and Middle School Assessment Program). Testing will be given to students in four core courses — English/language arts and math, beginning in 2009, and science and social studies to begin the following year.

Though the proposed legislation includes social studies testing, something State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and Oconee County School Superintendent Mike Lucas oppose, Whitmire said, “I can pretty well assure you that’s the way it’s going to remain.”

Therefore, formative testing will now take place twice a year rather than once. PACT testing has traditionally been administered following completion of the district’s 160th day of student instruction, with the make-up test two weeks later. The multiple-choice portion of EMSAP would be administered at the end of the school year and the writing portion of the test earlier in the school year.

The Walhalla representative also said that the revisions work to address other complaints regarding the present form of EAA — including too much testing at the end of the year, no feedback from the tests and test results coming back too late.

Under the revised EAA, Whitmire said test results would be reported no later than August 1; Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic ratings would be changed to Exemplary (where student achievement is above grade level standard), Met (where the student met grade level), and Not Met (where the student did not meet grade level standard); graduation rates would be listed on school report cards; a third award — Closing the Achievement Gap — would be added to Palmetto Gold and Silver; more flexibility would be provided for technical assistance; and the improvement rating would be changed to Growth, while retaining Absolute.

Once the bill passes the House, Whitmire said it would go to the Senate for approval. Any changes will be sent back to the House and, if there is disagreement, three separate meetings will take place to hammer out differences. Once those differences are resolved, the bill would go back to the House for approval and sent back to the Senate.

Eventually, the bill would go before Gov. Mark Sanford, who has the option of either signing it into law, vetoing it or allowing it to automatically pass into law.

Alexander and Sandifer addressed the uniform start date, legislation passed several years ago in which all schools throughout the state begin no later than the third Monday in August. Critics have claimed that isn’t enough time to prepare students for standardized tests.

“There are always opportunities to have things revisited, but I don’t feel the uniform start date will be revised anytime soon,” Alexander said. “Normally, the thought process (among legislators) is to wait awhile and evaluate how things are going before making any changes.”

Sandifer agreed, even though a bill to change the date back to early August has already been introduced.

“It will stay in the desk drawer and probably won’t see the light of day,” Sandifer said.

Whitmire also told educators that efforts by special interest groups to defeat them in this year’s June primary — reported in the Daily Journal and Daily Messenger earlier this month — comes with the job.

“That’s OK — we’re going to continue supporting public education,” Whitmire said. “My colleagues and I are 100 percent committed to supporting all of you in education.”