Student state testing scores seen as promising trend in Williamsburg County

Leaders in the Williamsburg County School District say this year’s SC Ready scores show year after year improvement by students.
Published: Sep. 25, 2023 at 6:14 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 25, 2023 at 10:25 PM EDT
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WILLIAMSBURG COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Leaders in the Williamsburg County School District say this year’s SC Ready scores show year after year improvement by students and that’s a promising trend in the discussion of returning the district to local control from the South Carolina Department of Education.

Amanda Dorris, the district’s Director of Testing and Accountability says the 2023 numbers excited the staff and students.

“We know we have a lot of work to do, but it was exciting to see the work that we put in was becoming fruitful and we were seeing the fruitfulness of our labor, and the teachers’ labor and the students, what they have done,” Dorris says.

Williamsburg County students saw an increase in all areas of SC Ready at the district level. That area tests math and English literature for third through eighth grades.

As for the high school end-of-course testing, there were student success increases in two out of the four subjects district-wide. Math’s Algebra One and U.S. History in the Constitution saw increases. For English two saw a decrease, but Dorris says their performance is near the state average. Another decrease in performance was biology Dorris says a plan is already in place to ensure preparedness this year.

With seventh-grade math being the one exception at 35% meets or exceeds expectations, every other grade level in math and English literature had meets or exceeds expectations rate at 45% or higher. Most were well over half the demographic in the meets and exceed expectations category.

“We definitely didn’t reach our goals. We are in route to reaching our goals. It’s just our roadmap, the scores give us a roadmap on what we need to improve on and what we need to do to make those improvements,” Dorris says.

Williamsburg County Schools have been under the control of the State Board of Education since 2018 because of financial problems and low grades among other issues. Former State Superintendent Molly Spearman told the board she planned to hand control over to the school board last year. When current leader Ellen Weaver took office, she informed the board on March 27 that it would not be happening.

Michael White first joined the Williamsburg County School District staff as Chief Academic Officer, but transitioned the role into the more specific Assistant Superintendent of Teaching, Learning and Student Support. He says he is encouraged by the continued score increases. To encourage improvement, White says the school is leaning on a scripted curriculum that teachers can still make their own and they are implementing checks for understanding throughout the year.

“We have adopted curriculum that is really supportive of teachers, regardless of the level that they’re at, or scaffolded wherever they needed to be. If they are novice and they need a script. There’s a script for them. If they are veteran and they need a script, but they want to make it their own. They have the ability to do that,” White says.

He says the scripted curriculum for English language is called Core Knowledge and Eureka Squared is being used for math.

“We’re seeing some really good success there,” White says.

White says some of their challenges year after year have been teacher turnover. He says in the times of a teacher shortage, teachers often leave for higher-paying districts which can be difficult for students and keeping a full staff. While they continue to seek dedicated teachers, White also says a past challenge has been students’ understanding of vocabulary and how that plays into testing.

“Sometimes scholars have the skills, they have the ability to do the work, but they don’t know the words. And so now we refuse to allow words to hinder us from being successful,” White says.

White says he is encouraged by the scores and the student improvement in areas like vocabulary. He credits some of the opportunities to the State Department of Education and thanks them for their assistance, to a certain extent.

“Now we’re just doing the work, you know. I feel like they feel really comfortable with us, that we can do the work and now it’s just about us and taking an opportunity to show them that we can do the work,” White says.

White says the state has already defined for district leaders what they need to achieve in terms of academic success to be removed from state control, and they will share details when they are allowed.

“I can’t really dictate at the moment - but we will release that they’ve already defined what it will take for us to be removed from state control to return control back to the local board. And I’ll tell you what, if I was a betting man, this district will come back to local board control this year,” White says.

When asked about a timeline for when control of the district will be returned to the board and superintendent and what the current scores mean for the situation, the State Department of Education provided the following:

There is not a specific timeline in place. The SCDE and the Williamsburg County School Board are approaching the process of transferring the district back to local control with deliberation and collaboration to ensure all supports and structures needed for high student achievement are in place.

The SCDE has been satisfied by the progress made regarding the identified financial issues. The state of emergency in Williamsburg also cited academic concerns, which is the focus of the continuing partnership between the SCDE and the Williamsburg County School Board.

State law is now more specific regarding circumstances under which the State Superintendent would be expected to intervene in the management of a school district, one of which is if the district is considered “chronically underperforming” (as defined in 59-18-1615). The Department has committed to the local school board to work collaboratively so that the district is poised to sustain student success at the point local control is fully returned to the Board.

Dorris and White say they are encouraged by the scores and have faith in the plans that are in place.

“It sparked everyone - spark the teachers, the students - to really put that focus on teaching and learning and showing the students that they could imagine greatness. So we’re holding all students accountable to being great,” Dorris says.

“We would just now move forward. We’re just going to keep doing those things... double down, as my superintendent likes to say,” White says.