COLUMBIA, SC – November 24, 2009 – Three out of four South Carolina students passed the state’s high school exit exam on their first attempt in 2009, according to results released today by the Education Department.
During their initial attempt last spring, 76.1 percent of South Carolina 10th-graders passed both sections of the state’s exit exam by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the test’s four achievement levels. That represented a decline from 2008’s average passing rate of 80.8 percent, the state’s highest rate ever.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said data and testing experts at his agency and in local school districts could not account for the sudden decrease after three consecutive years of improvement.
“We’ve been seeing very positive scoring trends, including the highest scores ever just last year,” Rex said. “So these results are not what we expected. But trends are what you look for in student testing, and we’ll have to wait a year and see if this is the beginning of a downward trend or just a random blip.
“I’m concerned that this may be a symptom of the continuing cuts we’ve experienced in education funding, although we’ve tried to keep their impact as far away from classrooms as possible. Districts have seen budget cuts during five of the 10 years these students have been in school, about $600 million in the past two years alone. That’s put pressure on schools just to maintain their core programs at a time when so many of our students have much greater needs.”
HSAP serves as both a state-mandated exit exam required for a South Carolina high school diploma and a federally mandated testing program to measure high school progress.
Public school students must pass both the English Language Arts and mathematics sections of the High School Assessment Program to meet the state’s exit examination requirement for a diploma. The tests are initially administered in the students’ second year of high school, and students who do not post passing scores on their first attempts have additional opportunities to retake the parts they did not pass.
About half of the states require high school students to pass an exit exam, in addition to earning the state-mandated number of course credits, to earn a diploma. South Carolina also requires students to earn 24 high school credits to graduate; some states require as few as 14.
Statewide, 80.2 percent of 2009 HSAP test-takers met the state standard of Level 2 or above in mathematics compared to 84.6 percent last year. In ELA, 84.9 percent met the state standard compared to 87.7 percent last year.
Other HSAP highlights included:
• Free or reduced-price lunch – 70.3 percent met the state standard compared to 76 percent last year.
• African-Americans – 68.4 percent met the state standard compared to 74.5 percent last year.
• Hispanics – 78.3 percent met the state standard compared to 78.6 percent last year.
• Limited English proficient – 72.9 percent met the state standard compared to 74 percent last year.
• Free or reduced-price lunch – 76.5 percent met the state standard compared to 80.3 percent last year.
• African-Americans – 76.8 percent met the state standard compared to 80.6 percent last year.
• Hispanics – 77.2 percent met the state standard compared to 78 percent last year.
• Limited English proficient – 68.5 percent met the state standard compared to 68.6 percent last year.
In addition to functioning as the state-mandated high school exit exam, HSAP scores also factor into high school Adequate Yearly Progress ratings under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires that all students score at a level of Proficient or higher by 2014. According to South Carolina’s NCLB plan, Proficient is equivalent to a score at Level 3 on HSAP’s four performance levels.
Statewide average scores at that level declined. In math, average Level 3 scores dropped from 56 percent in 2008 to 50.9 percent in 2009. In ELA, the average decreased from 59.3 percent at Level 3 or higher in 2008 to 49.9 percent in 2009. Additional highlights from the 2008 HSAP results related to NCLB requirements included:
• Free or reduced-price lunch – 34.8 percent scored Level 3 or higher in 2009, down from 40.4 percent in 2008.
• African-Americans – 31.5 percent scored Level 3 or higher in 2009, down from 36.5 percent in 2008.
• Hispanics – 45.4 percent scored Level 3 or higher in 2009, down from 47.8 percent in 2008.
• Limited English proficient – 35.3 percent scored Level 3 or higher in 2009, down from 42.6 percent in 2008.
• Free or reduced-price lunch – 32.3 percent scored Level 3 or higher in 2009, down slightly from 42.4 percent in 2008.
• African-Americans – 31.2 percent scored Level 3 or higher in 2009, down from 40.5 percent in 2008.
• Hispanics – 38.7 percent scored Level 3 or higher in 2009, down from 48.6 percent in 2008.
• Limited English proficient – 21.8 percent scored Level 3 or higher in 2009, down from 36.7 percent in 2008.
Rex has made improving the state’s on-time high school graduation rate – the percentage of students who enter the ninth grade and move ahead to graduate from high school “on time” in four years – a key goal for South Carolina’s public schools. Education Week magazine said earlier this year that South Carolina’s improvement in graduation rates was the nation’s best.
Rex said the state’s Personal Pathways to Success initiative is helping students to make connections between the skills they learn in school and the skills they need to succeed in college and in their careers. In cooperation with parents and guidance counselors, each South Carolina high school student creates a personalized graduation plan centered on his or her goals. That plan includes selecting an academic focus – a “career cluster” – that will organize high school coursework around each student’s strengths and interests.
More than 5,000 students are enrolled this fall in South Carolina’s “virtual school” program, which provides Advanced Placement courses in rural areas that don’t have enough students to support these classes. In addition, “credit recovery” programs help students who fall behind in their class work. If a student can’t keep up in a particular course, that student can catch up in a self-paced on-line program.
Stronger early childhood programs can help at-risk children get off to stronger starts in elementary school, Rex said, making it more likely that they will graduate on time.