Only half of the black male students in the Beaufort County School District's elementary and middle schools are meeting grade-level standards on a key state achievement test.
Just 52 percent of black males in the county's public high schools passed the state's exit exam on their first attempt. That number for Hispanic males is 72 percent. For black females, it's 66 percent.
The Board of Education studied those results during its winter work session Friday and pledged to remedy the problem. On a motion by board member Bill Evans, the board voted to make raising academic achievement -- particularly that of black male students -- its top instructional priority.
Board members said they've known for years that black male students lag other ethnic groups academically in Beaufort County, in South Carolina and across the nation.
"But to know to what degree and how far behind they are is very shocking," board vice chairman George Wilson said.
Friday's discussion was prompted by a report board members received from an independent consultant that examined the achievement of minority students in public schools here.
Independent education consultants Jennifer Coleman and Jocelyn Ross were hired for $13,000 to analyze five years of scores on state-mandated tests, including the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards and the High School Assessment Program.
Black males lag every other subgroup in the district, Coleman said.
"If you want to continue to move your district academically, you're going to have to move your African-American male subgroup," she said.
Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said reading the report was a "sobering experience" and promised to improve scores.
The district received better news about the achievement of students who enter schools with limited English proficiency. Coleman said those students experienced double-digit gains in reading and science in recent years.
"There is something going on in the district that is moving your LEP students faster than I've seen anywhere else in the state," Coleman said. "Something that you've been doing is working phenomenally with this group."
The number of students in county schools with limited English proficiency has almost doubled in the past eight years to 16.5 percent of the district's more than 19,000 students, Coleman said.
The consultants also produced a cost-benefit analysis of the International Baccalaureate programs in place in six district schools. The programs are at Hilton Head IB Elementary School, Broad River Elementary School, Hilton Head Island Middle School, Robert Smalls Middle School, Hilton Head Island High School and Battery Creek High School.
The evaluation primarily focused on the diploma program for high school juniors and seniors.
The IB Diploma Program, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is an internationally recognized, two-year curriculum that prepares students for university work and gives them a chance to earn college credit in high school.
The consultants recommended that the program be discontinued in local schools. The cost-benefit analysis shows the cost of the diploma program was about $663 per participant in 2010, including dues paid to the organization, supplies, teacher salaries and travel. That figure does not include costs for the elementary and middle school programs.
Because only 10 of the district's 172 participants earned the full IB diploma in 2010, the cost per diploma was $11,408, according to the report.
Truesdale said district administrators will discuss the evaluation with staff and school improvement councils at the IB schools over the next few weeks before developing a response to the report.