The percentage of Beaufort County students passing the state's high school exit exam on the first try rose this year, according to results released Thursday by the S.C. Department of Education.
Seventy-four percent of county students passed both sections of the High School Assessment Program during their second year of high school. That number was less than 72 percent in 2009.
Sean Alford, the Beaufort County School District's instructional services chief, said teachers' hard work, increased collaboration and efforts to motivate students are paying off.
"Any indicator that tells us we are doing a better job at the high school level is something to be happy about," he said.
Still, the district's pass rate trails state results. Nearly 79 percent of students across South Carolina passed the exam on their first attempt this year.
Locally, only Hilton Head Island High School topped the state's rate, earning a first-attempt pass rate of 81 percent.
Alford said the district started the school year with improvement plans in place. For instance, he said freshmen whose prior test scores indicated they need extra help are enrolled in enrichment classes. In place of an elective, those students take an extra math or English class.
The HSAP test serves as both an exit exam required for a South Carolina public high school diploma and a federally mandated testing program to measure high school progress. Students who do not pass both the English language arts and math sections in their sophomore year have chances to retake the test.
Scores improved this year at three local high schools -- Battery Creek, Beaufort and Hilton Head. The pass rate at Bluffton High fell by about two points to 73 percent. Students at the new Whale Branch Early College High School will take the exam for the first time this spring.
Hilton Head and Battery Creek posted the biggest gains in scores between 2009 and 2010. At Hilton Head, the pass rate rose from about 74 percent to 81 percent.
Principal Amanda O'Nan said teachers school-wide reinforce math and English, no matter the subject. She said even physical education classes involve those core skills.
"It's about having every teacher, every day, on board to teach literacy and numeracy," O'Nan said.
She said faculty also work closely with students who did not pass the exam on the first attempt. Each of those students is assigned a faculty mentor to meet with weekly to prepare them to pass before graduation, she said.
At Battery Creek, the pass rate rose from about 62 percent in 2009 to nearly 69 percent this year. Principal Edmond Burnes said math scores particularly improved.
He said after-school tutoring for students who need extra help has boosted scores, as well as a program called "Drop Everything and Do Math." About once a week during the semester of the exam, teachers in all subjects pause to work through math problems with students.