Beaufort County public school students continued to make gains on standardized tests this year, according to data released Thursday.
A new state grading system gives the school district a "B" overall, meaning it exceeded state expectations. All but four schools in the district were rated as meeting or exceeding expectations.
"An overall rating of a 'B' is absolutely awesome, especially since we were in corrective action just a few years ago," district superintendent Valerie Truesdale said. "It's pretty amazing."
The S.C. Department of Education released district scores Thursday on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards and the High School Assessment Program. The department also released federal accountability data. For the first time, schools and districts received a letter grade that rates their progress toward achieving standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
In the past, if schools didn't meet all those standards, they did not make the federal standard known as "adequate yearly progress."
The new system of letter grades gives schools more credit for progress made toward meeting those goals and also adds more standards based on science and history test scores, graduation rates and several other factors.
The state's new grading system can be confusing, school district officials say.
The grades emphasize growth from year to year, so some of the district's top schools in terms of absolute performance received average grades. For example, Hilton Head Island High School, which typically rates high overall, received a "C" because it didn't make as much progress between 2011 and 2012.
Overall, Truesdale said she's pleased with the district's performance. Fourteen schools earned an "A," about 46 percent of the district's schools. That's in line with scores statewide -- 45 percent of schools received an "A," and 84 percent received a "C" or better.
In total, 26 of the district's 30 schools met or exceeded state expectations. Last year only 16 of the 30 schools met adequate yearly progress.
The district did not meet federal goals this year set for disabled students on math and science tests. Last year, those were the only two goals the district failed to meet, causing it to be labeled as not making adequate yearly progress. Truesdale said the district will continue to focus on improving instruction for disabled students.
Four schools' grades also drew some concern. Whale Branch cluster schools received grades of "D," and St. Helena Elementary got an "F." About 10 percent of the state's 1,082 schools received an "F."
Truesdale said the district will boost partnerships with community organizations to try to improve those scores.
District officials have inquired with the state Education Department about the D grade assigned to Whale Branch Early College High School according to a press release. The department has said it's not unusual for districts to believe errors have been made, and that the department investigates every request it receives.
Beaufort Elementary, though it received an "A," is on a statewide list of schools with a large achievement gap between groups of students. The list includes 55 Title I schools, which receive federal money because of their high percentage of students on free- and reduced-price lunch programs.
Truesdale said the presence of magnet programs at Beaufort Elementary -- such as the Advanced Math, Engineering and Science Academy for high-performing students -- might have widened achievement gaps at the school.
Meanwhile, Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary, another Title I school, was recognized for its progress in closing achievement gaps.
ELEMENTARY AND MIDDLE SCHOOL SCORES
Elementary and middle school students also made gains on state standardized tests, though their growth shows some signs of slowing.
Students in third through eighth grade take the PASS exams in four subjects: English, math, science and social studies. Fifth- and eighth-graders also take writing exams.
The district has made gains on these exams since they were first administered in 2009. But gains were slower this year than in 2011.
In 2012, the percentage of Beaufort County students meeting or exceeding state standards increased in 14 of 26 subjects over last year's scores.
In 2011, that percentage increased in 22 of the 26 subjects.
Truesdale said the slowdown might be due to budget cuts that eliminated some math and literacy coach positions in the past few years. It's not likely those positions will return, she said, so they've got to find another way to keep up the pace.
HIGH SCHOOL EXIT EXAMS
For the first time, Beaufort County students beat state averages on the HSAP high school exit exam.
The exam is given in English and math to high school sophomores. Students must pass the exams to earn a high school diploma.
This year, 81 percent of students -- up 5 percentage points from last year -- passed both exams on their first attempt. Statewide, 80 percent of students passed both.
The percentage of students passing both exams has increased for five years, as has the percentage of students passing the English or math exam alone.
Bluffton High School students had the highest rate of passing both exams, at 86.5 percent.
Truesdale said she's pleased with the high schools' progress.
"The high schools had yet to really crack the exit exams with strong, strong gains until these scores," she said. "I'm absolutely thrilled, as are the high school principals."
- District backs state's No Child Left Behind plans; Jan. 1, 2012
- State education department officials answer questions on No Child Left Behind plan; Jan. 4, 2012
- County students outperform state in three subjects on PASS test; July 21, 2011
- District scores on HSAP, end-of-course exams increase; Oct. 21, 2011