Horry County Schools did better than the state's average gains on the 2010 Palmetto Assessment of State Standards test, while the Georgetown County School District had mixed results but saw its biggest improvement in mathematics.
South Carolina saw gains in the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards in a majority of subjects in four of six grades, according to test results released Friday by the S.C. Department of Education.
"I'm really pleased to see that we outpaced the state percentage of students who meet and exceed the standards at every grade in every subject," said Horry County Schools Superintendent Cindy Elsberry, who said the results are just one segment of data she will use to determine the district's progress.
Georgetown officials said its schools "showed steady growth," but overall results were not consistent. In writing, reading comprehension and social studies, just as many grades improved on last year's scores as those who did not.
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Patti Hammel, executive director for studentperformance and federal programs for the Georgetown district, said the success in mathematics is a result of the "hands-on" math approach in classrooms, where students are given tangible objects to help them figure out math concepts.
PASS is the state's end-of-year accountability test administered to students in grades three through eight. Based on state academic standards, it tests five subject areas: writing, English language arts (reading and research), mathematics, science and social studies.
PASS replaced the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test, or PACT, in 2009. Upon release of those first PASS scores, officials at both the state and local levels cautioned that comparing PACT to PASS was like comparing apples to oranges. This year's results offer the first comparison of two sets of PASS scores.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said in a statement that this year's results show schools' determination for success in light of budget cuts that have forced moves by districts such as cutting positions and increasing class size.
"South Carolina's educators should be applauded for keeping the focus on teaching and learning even in tough times," Rex said. "We're doing the best we can now to help them with standards and curriculum support, but we're all facing an 'imperfect storm' of dwindling resources and greater student needs."
In Horry County, third-graders saw the biggest gains. In writing alone, they went from 68.9 percent passing in 2009 to 77.6 percent, with the exemplary score rising from 39.5 percent to 48.1 percent. Third-grade passing percentage rose in all subjects except science, where it remained at 61.6 percent, but the exemplary percentage rose from 18.4 percent to 27.1 percent. Exemplary is the highest of three performance levels for the test.
Elsberry said real efforts have been made at early levels, starting with 4-year-olds up to second grade, so more gains should be reflected as those students move into this school year.
She said there were more gains made in social studies and that literacy is something that has been emphasized. Interdisciplinary teaching was cited last year as a way to combine literacy and social studies to help students better understand historical concepts.
While she is pleased with the results, Elsberry said she is not ecstatic because while gains were made, they were not made in every single grade and every single subject.
Performance at the elementary school level was better than that at middle schools, and Elsberry said they are studying that area. She said the type of curriculum used in elementary schools isn't offered at the middle-school level, and they are looking into another curriculum.
"The students have a good foundation," Elsberry said, "but there's some adjustment we need to make. ... We would love to have huge gains, but realistically, if we have incremental, steady progress, that's what you can sustain."
Elsberry said in February, she will give her report to the Horry County Board of Education and that PASS is just one part of "the big picture that really shows where we are and how far we've moved."
The report also will include Adequate Yearly Progress results, which were released Aug. 2 and compare how the state did on its assessment with how other states scored on their assessments; and results from MAP (Measure of Academic Progress), a national test that is given in October.
Elsberry said the district can't rest on its laurels just because PASS scores exceeded state scores if it wants to accomplish the school board's goals.
"PASS is a guide," she said, "but we're looking beyond the state average at preparing students to be globally competitive."
In Georgetown county, Hammel said the district will have to focus on reading and writing in the 2010-11 school year.
"This is an area we still didn't make a lot of gains in," she said.
Results in those categories were mixed compared with 2009's scores.
But, "longitudinally, we can see lots of growth," Hammel said.
PASS scores allow grades to be tracked over time; for example, scores show how the students who were in third grade in 2009 did in 2010 in fourth grade.
Hammel said that progress will be invaluable to the district as its students move forward.
"Over time, this PASS test is going to let us see how students are improving from grade to grade," she said. "We're going to know exactly where to concentrate our efforts to get better."
Hammel said that the scores in science and social studies are harder to draw conclusions from because a different group of students takes the test each year.
She said the schools will continue to emphasize experiments in science classes and reading instruction along with nonfiction materials in history classes.
The most consistent scores in a grade level were found in the fifth grade, where in all of the subjects, students did better in 2009 than this year.
Hammel said she isn't sure why that is, but "we'll certainly be exploring that with our teachers."
She also said the district did not make any major improvements in "subgroups," like black or Hispanic students.
"We will be concentrating our efforts to be sure they have opportunities," she said, "so we can all grow alike."