Monday, November 10, 2008

SC kids have suddenly got smarter

The exams haven't been dumbed down. Oh No!

High school sophomores made record improvements on the state's high school exit exam on their first attempt this spring, according to data released Friday by the S.C. Department of Education. Of the more than 51,000 first-time test takers, four out of five passed both the math and English/language arts portions - the highest success rate since the current version of the test was first administered in 2004. This year, the average pass rate on the High School Assessment Program test - which must be passed to earn a high school diploma - was 80.8 percent. That's up nearly 4 percentage points from 2007, and it is the third consecutive year of improvements.

State Superintendent Jim Rex said students who pass the exit exam on their first try should be more likely to graduate on time and have future success. Currently, 73.3 percent of S.C. students graduate from high school in four years. "If we continue to improve, that could have a positive long-term impact on high school graduation rates," Rex said.

The Department of Education also noted some of the biggest gains this year were from students whose native language is not English. High schools in every district in Richland, Lexington and Kershaw counties improved their pass rates from 2007. Students at Dutch Fork High and Chapin High in Lexington-Richland 5 and Lexington High in Lexington 1 had the highest overall passing rates - 94 percent or higher - in the area. At Richland 1's Dreher High and Lexington 3's Batesburg-Leesville High, students made the biggest gains of any area high school - posting a 13.4 percentage point increase over last year.

"That's pretty exciting news," said Batesburg-Leesville principal Raymond Padgett, who noted scores improved consistently over a few years. "Obviously we attribute a lot of this to ... the dedication and hard work of our teachers, and our students, as well." More focus is on English and math classes, teachers are more available for tutoring and faculty have more planning time, the principal said.

Last year, faculty also challenged students in a class meeting to do better than previous students. "We talked to them about the importance of this," Padgett said. "What it meant to them, what it meant to the school, and what it meant to the community.

Besides being a graduation requirement, S.C. exit exam scores also determine whether students meet federal accountability goals. A passing score on the state test is a 2, on a scale of 1 to 4. The federal standard is a 3. Friday's report showed that 56 percent of students scored a 3 or above in math, up from 52.3 percent last year. In English/language arts, scores dropped slightly, from 59.8 percent to 59.3 percent.

Rex said graduation plans, career clusters and innovative instruction, especially ninth-grade academies, are helping better prepare students for the test. "A lot of good things are going on in the state," he said Friday. "It's heartening to see that we're making progress."


Tough Times Strain Colleges Rich and Poor

Arizona State University, anticipating at least $25 million in budget cuts this fiscal year - on top of the $30 million already cut - is ending its contracts with as many as 200 adjunct instructors. Boston University, Cornell and Brown have announced selective hiring freezes. And Tufts University, which for the last two years has, proudly, been one of the few colleges in the nation that could afford to be need-blind - that is, to admit the best-qualified applicants and meet their full financial need - may not be able to maintain that generosity for next year's incoming class.

This fall, Tufts suspended new capital projects and budgeted more for financial aid. But with the market downturn, and the likelihood that more applicants will need bigger aid packages, need-blind admissions may go by the wayside. "The target of being need-blind is our highest priority," said Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts. "But with what's happening in the larger economy, we expect that the incoming class is going to be needier. That's the real uncertainty."

Tough economic times have come to public and private universities alike, and rich or poor, they are figuring out how to respond. Many are announcing hiring freezes, postponing construction projects or putting off planned capital campaigns. With endowment values and charitable gifts likely to decline, the process of setting next year's tuition low enough to keep students coming, but high enough to support operations, is trickier than ever.

Dozens of college presidents, especially at wealthy institutions, have sent letters and e-mail to students and their families describing their financial situation and belt-tightening plans. At Williams College, for example, President Morton Owen Schapiro wrote that with last year's negative return on the endowment and the worsening situation since June, some renovation and facilities spending would be reduced and nonessential openings left unfilled.

Many students, increasingly conscious of costs, are flocking to their state universities; at Binghamton University, part of the New York State university system, applications were up 50 percent this fall. But with this year's state budget problems, tuition increases at public universities may be especially steep. Some public universities have already announced midyear tuition increases.

With endowment values shrinking, variable-rate debt costs rising and states cutting their financing, colleges face challenges on multiple fronts, said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. "There's no evidence of a complete meltdown," Ms. Broad said, "but the problems are serious enough that higher education is going to need help from the government." And as in other sectors, she said, some financially shaky institutions will most likely be seeking mergers.

Nationwide, retrenchment announcements are coming fast and furious, as state after state reduces education financing. The University of Florida, which eliminated 430 faculty and staff positions this year, was told recently to cut next year's budget by 10 percent, probably requiring more layoffs. Financing for the University of Massachusetts system was cut $24.6 million for the current fiscal year.

On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California proposed a midyear budget cut of $65.5 million for the University of California system - on top of the $48 million reduction already in the budget. "Budget cuts mean that campuses won't be able to fill faculty vacancies, that the student-faculty ratio rises, that students have lecturers instead of tenured professors," said Mark G. Yudof, president of the California system. "Higher education is very labor intensive. We may be getting to the point where there will have to be some basic change in the model."

Private colleges, too, are tightening their belts - turning down thermostats, scrapping plans for new gardens or quads, reducing faculty raises. But many are also increasing their pool of financial aid. Vassar College will give out $1 million more in financial aid this year than originally budgeted, even though the endowment, which provides a third of its operating budget, dropped to $765 million at the end of September, down $80 million from late June. President Catharine Bond Hill of Vassar said the college would reduce its operating costs, but remain need-blind.

Many institutions with small endowments, however, will probably become more need-sensitive than usual this year, quietly offering places to fewer students who need large aid packages.


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