School district's report card improves; staff disputes graduation-rate data

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School district's report card improves; staff disputes graduation-rate data

By KATE CERVE
kcerve@beaufortgazette.com
843-706-8177
Published Thursday, March 17, 2011   |  616 Words  |  

The Beaufort County School District's annual report card rating improved to "average" this year despite a decline in the high school graduation rate, mirroring a state trend.

The district's on-time graduation rate fell 8 percentage points to 61 percent in 2010, according to data released today by the S.C. Department of Education. The state's rate fell nearly two percentage points to 72 percent.

The county school district has challenged the accuracy of the graduation rate data, but superintendent Valerie Truesdale said raising the rate remains a top priority.

"While we questioned some of the data, we still know we have a problem and we have to be vigilant about making sure our students are getting what they need to successfully graduate," she said.

In South Carolina, graduation rates are calculated using a federally approved method that tracks the percentage of students who complete high school and get a diploma within four years.

The method used this year remained the same, but the documentation required from school districts was adjusted and the process used to build the data files for graduation rates changed, according to the Education Department.

Truesdale suspects those changes created some inaccuracies, and local data suggest the district's graduation rate is higher than the state reported. The district is appealing to the Department of Education, she said.

Spokesman Jim Foster said the state department will look into the district's concerns. If the district can demonstrate errors were made, the department will publicly correct the information, he said.

Truesdale said the district is taking steps to increase the number of students who graduate in four years. For example, ninth-graders who are not meeting state standards in English or math are enrolled in extra courses in those subjects.

Early-dismissal and late-arrival programs for high schoolers have been eliminated, so all students are expected to take a full schedule of rigorous coursework through their senior year, she said.

"We have to expect more of our students," she said.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais called for innovative solutions to raise graduation rates in a news release.

"To improve the long-term prospects for economic growth and job-creation in South Carolina, we must graduate more students from high school," he said. "The bottom line for parents, students, educators, and taxpayers is that slightly more than one out of every four students fails to graduate on time."

Despite the statewide declines in graduation rates, high schools and school districts across the state generally posted better report card ratings last year than in 2009.

The Beaufort County School District earned an "average" report card rating for the first time since 2007. It had earned "below average" ratings in 2008 and 2009.

School report cards are required by the state's Education Accountability Act of 1998 and give schools one of five assessments based on a mathematical formula -- excellent, good, average, below average or at-risk.

The report cards compile results of various state-mandated tests, as well as data on student-teacher ratios, attendance, dollars spent per student and average teacher salaries, among other data.

The ratings calculation for high schools includes scores on end-of-course exams and the high school exit exam in addition to graduation rates. The percentage of students passing those state assessments rose in Beaufort County last year.

That meant three of Beaufort County's high schools maintained their report cards ratings and one improved -- Bluffton High School earned a "good" rating for the first time.

Report cards for elementary and middle schools were published in November.