Graduation rates drop in most high schools in Horry, Georgetown counties

High schools in Horry and Georgetown counties saw an overall improvement in absolute ratings on the 2010 annual report cards released today by the S.C. Department of Education, but on-time graduation rates fell at all but four area high schools.

Both rates mirrored those at the state level, where overall high school and district ratings improved, but on-time graduation rates declined in the majority of S.C. high schools.

"A one-size-fits-all approach to public education won't increase graduation rates," said State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais. "We need creative, innovative and student-centered solutions that match students with learning environments that meet their needs."

At the district level, Horry County Schools retained an average absolute rating, while improving its growth rating from at-risk in 2009 to good. The district's graduation rate dropped from 75 percent in 2009 to 68.6 percent this year. The state graduation rate was 73.1 percent.

Five of Horry's nine high schools improved their absolute ratings, with Carolina Forest being the only school to rate excellent, up from good in 2009. Green Sea Floyds' absolute rating dropped from excellent to average, and the other high schools kept their same ratings from last year. Three schools improved their growth ratings, while four dropped.

"We focus more on absolute ratings because it tells how we performed for this year," said Teal Britton, Horry County Schools spokeswoman. "Growth ratings are, in many cases, more rigorous. ... You can gain, but not gain enough to reach goals that have been set for accountability standards."

Graduation rates increased at St. James, Loris and North Myrtle Beach high schools, while they dropped for six of the nine schools. The most dramatic decline was at Conway High, which went from 71 percent last year to 50.2 percent.

Porter Kennington, Conway's principal, attributes the percentage drop to how students are counted in the on-time graduation calculations.

All students who enroll for the first year of high school are assigned a year in which to graduate. Some never show up at the high school, and no matter the reason, they are still included in the count.

The state the percentage of students who complete high school by earning a diploma in four years. Unless legitimate documentation is produced to have the unaccounted-for students removed from the tally, they are automatically counted as dropouts.

Kennington said his school has had some issues in accounting for students, but they have improved student tracking over the past few years, which should account for most students going forward.

"There is no way we can believe it would drop so significantly unless there was a problem [with the method]," Kennington said, "and not just here, but all over our state. That's not fair to the high schools, and the state has made a change [to the process] for next year."

The Georgetown County School District saw an overall improvement in its absolute and growth ratings, raising both to average from below average and at-risk, respectively.

District administrators credit the improvements to such things as their increased ratings in end-of-course tests and graduation rates.

Most of the schools' absolute ratings were good or average. Waccamaw had the only excellent rating.

The district's graduation rate was 9 percent greater than the statewide rate at 82.1 percent. But the graduation rates at the individual high schools were less consistent.

Three of the four high schools had a lower graduation rate when compared with 2009. Waccamaw High was the only exception with a 2010 graduation rate of 94.3 percent compared with 92.4 percent for 2009.

But Waccamaw, Carver's Bay and Georgetown high schools bested comparable schools' graduation rates for 2010 by an average of more than 12 percent. Andrews High School was the only one to have a lower graduation rate than its comparable school, with 65.2 percent graduation compared with 70.4 percent for comparable schools.

There also has been much talk in the district about End of Course tests and how to improve them, with some of the high schools switching to a new class schedule that administrators say could improve those scores by offering more consistent core classes during the school year.

The schools' improvement in End of Course tests contributed to the district's overall gains, said Patti Hammel, the district's executive director for student performance and federal programs.

The district's average passage rate for those tests went from 57.4 percent in 2009 to 63 percent in 2010, an increase of more than 5 percent.

Hammel said those scores and the graduation rates account for half of the district's overall rating.

She said the district "anticipates higher scores on the End of Course tests from our students who have participated in the freshman academy" during this school year.

Freshman academy is a program for all of the district's ninth-graders that emphasizes core classes and help in transitioning to high school academics.

Ratings formulas are based on student achievement levels set by the Education Oversight Committee, which was created by the General Assembly to guide implementation of the state's Education Accountability Act of 1998. Schools and districts receive absolute ratings - excellent, good, average, below average or at-risk - plus growth ratings that compare individual student test scores from one year to the next.

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

High school report cards - and, as a result, district cards - were delayed because of changes in the process used to build the data files that determine high school graduation rates.