HOW THEY FARED

The following are the 2013 absolute and growth ratings for tri-county school districts. Schools and districts earn one of five ratings — 'at-risk,' 'below average,' 'average,' 'good' or 'excellent' — based on their students' test scores and graduation rates.

DistrictAbsoluteGrowthBerkeleyGoodBelow AverageCharlestonGoodAverageDorchester 2ExcellentExcellentDorchester 4AverageAverageSource: S.C. Department of Education

Chalk it up to South Carolina notching its best on-time graduation rate ever and higher test scores in most subjects and grades.

On the web

To see individual schools or districts' report card ratings or graduation rates, go to: ed.sc.gov/data/report-cards.

Report cards for South Carolina's schools and districts look better this year than they have since 2009, which was the first year it gave the PASS test to third- through eighth-graders.

Neil Robinson, chairman of the state Education Oversight Committee, called the 2.6 percentage point jump in the state's graduation rate to 77.5 percent “phenomenal,” and he pointed to the majority of schools statewide that were rated “good” or “excellent” as a sea change compared with when that figure hovered at 32 percent.

He attributed the gains to the state's emphasis on improving teaching, which he said was triggered this year by the move to the new Common Core State Standards that required more professional development for educators.

“These improvements have not been made without hard work,” he said.

Others, such as state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, disagreed about the reason behind the improvement, and he said he didn't think the Common Core Standards made a difference.

“If we're saying it took Common Core to improve teaching, that would be sad,” he said.

He thought the gains stemmed from schools focusing more on outputs, such as what students know and can do, rather than inputs, such as degrees teachers have and the minutes students must sit in a seat. He said schools also are receiving specific and targeted feedback through the federal letter grade accountability system.

In the Lowcountry, school districts maintained their absolute ratings from the previous school year, but more individual schools in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester 2 saw higher ratings.

The consistent shortfall this year was in elementary and middle school growth ratings, which tended to drop. Officials attributed that to a change in the way those ratings were calculated.

Some were critical of the new formula because it gave more credit to schools that moved students to meeting grade-level expectations rather than to those who were pushing students to exceed that standard.

“That hurt some of our 'excellent' schools,” said Charleston School Superintendent Nancy McGinley. “It hurt their pride because they are very competitive and accustomed to being excellent. ... I'm discouraged by that decision because I think we should be about moving all kids to higher levels.”

Report cards are given to districts and schools as part of the state's accountability system. Schools' ratings of “excellent,” “good,” “average,” “below average” and “at risk” are based on graduation rates, exit exams, end-of-course and PASS scores, depending on the grades served.

Berkeley

Berkeley County School District maintained its “good” absolute rating, but slipped to “below average” in its growth rating.

“We're feeling OK with the absolute rating,” said Chief Academic Officer Kevin O'Gorman. “We're not as happy with our growth rating, obviously.”

He said the district is still analyzing the data.

“We saw a lot of growth in some of our target areas, but in the actual formula that the state uses, you don't necessarily see the gains in that growth rating,” he said.

The district recently rewrote its English Language Arts curriculum and made it a focus, he said.

The 2014-2015 testing cycle should more accurately measure college and career readiness, said Superintendent Rodney Thompson. He said he's confident that when the new tests, new curriculum and accountability systems are aligned, “students and schools will achieve results that better reflect proficiency with the subject matter.”

The district concentrated on increasing its graduation rate and saw a bump of 2.9 percent, to 77.3 percent.

Charleston

If McGinley were writing headlines for the district's report cards, she'd write “continuous progress.” She pointed to the changes since 2007 when she became the district's leader, such as a 35 percentage point drop in the schools rated “at risk” or “below average” and a 16 percentage point increase in the percentage of schools rated “good” or “excellent.”

One of the most significant changes this year was the gain made by the district's “at risk” schools. The high school and middle school portions of downtown Burke High, which is considered one of the district's worst academic schools, no longer are considered “at risk.”

“That reflects hard work, not just this year, but over the past couple of years that needs to be celebrated,” McGinley said.

Middle school grades at Lincoln High and elementary grades at Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts also bettered their “at risk” rating. It's the first time in recent memory that none of the district's schools regressed to an “at risk” rating.

McGinley said “progress is always fragile,” so it's important to evaluate what went wrong and right at those schools.

Other small, high-poverty schools, such as St. John's High and Baptist Hill High, also saw improvements in their ratings, and McGinley said she was excited about the possibility of attracting more neighborhood students to return to those schools. A bigger enrollment would enable them to broaden their course offerings, she said.

Still, other schools that have been the focus of improvement efforts, such as “at risk”-rated North Charleston High, didn't see as strong of results. McGinley said she's struggling to figure out how to stabilize the number of students moving into and out of that school during the year. It's difficult to make any plan work with its students continually changing, she said.

The district exceeded its annual on-time graduation rate target that's part of its five-year plan, Vision 2016. Its goal is 81 percent by 2016, and the district moved from 75.5 percent to 76.9 percent.

McGinley plans to talk to the county school board soon about ways the district can accelerate progress to meet its 2016 achievement goals, as well as ways to factor in students with disabilities and those who don't speak English.

Dorchester 2

Dorchester 2 Superintendent Joe Pye spent Wednesday afternoon at Windsor Hill Arts Infused Elementary School, which this year received its first “excellent” absolute rating.

“They have defied the odds,” Pye said. “This is the school that probably has the most at-risk kids with the highest poverty level, and here they are, right there with our other schools.”

Windsor Hill's success is indicative of the district-wide performance this year. District 2 earned both an absolute rating of “excellent” and a growth rating of “excellent” for the first time, joining a group that includes just 18 of the state's 84 districts.

Seventeen of the district's 21 schools earned an absolute rating of “excellent” and the other four had a rating of “good.”

“There were a couple little places that we were concerned about but, by and large, it was the best ever,” Pye said. “I'm hard on myself and the school district. It's never enough. It's like, 'Wow, we only had 17 schools to get excellent on absolute. I want it to be all 21 of them.' Truly we have put ourselves in that elite group, but there's always a bigger mountain to climb. Our goal is to steadily get better and better and better.”

The district also had a significant increase in the overall graduation rate with an 80.7, an increase of 4.2 percent from last year, including a 5.7 percent increase to 77.8 percent for Summerville High.

“Next year we should also see some rise, but the year after is the year we are going to blow it out and I think all our hard work is going to finally show,” Pye said. “I mean, we are projecting it could be 90 (percent) in a couple years. We know we are doing the right thing. We have to be patient. We have to keep working at it and make sure we don't slide back on anything.”

Dorchester 4

“From what I used to look at five or six years ago, man, we've come a long way,” Dorchester District 4 Superintendent Jerry Montjoy said.

The elementary and middle school results were solid, he said, and the district's only high school, Woodlands, improved in all areas.

“The (High School Assessment Program passage rate) is the best we ever had,” he said. “Our End of Course (test result) is not where we want it to be, but it improved. U.S. history is holding us back and that's an area we are targeting this year.”

Montjoy said he was pleased with the on-time graduation rate increase from 71.5 percent last year to 78 this year, but his goal is to get that number over 80 percent by next year.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 843-937-5546.