South Carolina students generally fared better on their end-of-course exams this past school year, and they made the greatest gains on the relatively new biology test, according to results released early today by the state Department of Education.

Lowcountry students showed across-the-board gains in biology, which was introduced as an area for state testing during the 2010-11 school year.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires states to test all students in a high school science course, and the state decided to switch from physical science to biology.

The state saw its average biology score shoot up 3.2 percentage points to 80.8 percent, and Charleston saw the biggest jump and best score among local districts with a 4.3 percentage point increase to 85.6.

“Measuring student achievement is an important tool to improving instructional practices,” said state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais in a statement. “End-of-course assessments demonstrate how well high school students have mastered key concepts and skills they will use after graduation.”

Berkeley County schools tied the state average in biology, while Dorchester District 2 exceeded it with 84.6. Dorchester District 4 scored the lowest locally at 73.8 percent.

End-of-course exams are significant because they count for 20 percent of each student's final grade in that subject. They also contribute to schools' overall ratings on state report cards and the new federal letter grading system.

Students take the test whenever they complete the class; students typically take the English and algebra exams as freshmen, biology as sophomores year, and U.S. history and Constitution as juniors.

The state uses a traditional 100-point grading scale for the exams, with scores of 93-100 earning an “A,” 92-85 earning a “B,” 84-77 earning a “C” and 70-76 earning a “D.” Anything less than that is an “F.”

Laura Donnelly, Charleston County schools' director of assessment and evaluation, said the district will feed students' test results back to middle and high schools so educators can see the strengths and areas they need to improve. She said teachers have suggested that more detailed information be provided so they could better adjust instruction.

Still, district officials were pleased with students' high average in biology.

“It reflects the hard work of the high school teachers focusing on that subject,” Donnelly said.

The state's students overall saw higher average scores compared with last year in every subject, but Zais highlighted the percentage of students earning a failing grade on the English exam. Twenty-six percent of students earned an “F” statewide.

In the Lowcountry, Berkeley and Charleston had roughly 23 percent of its students scoring an “F” on that exam, while Dorchester 2 saw 18.8 percent of its students failing the test. Rural Dorchester 4 had the greatest percentage of failing English students with 35.3.

Zais repeatedly has used the state's results on English standardized exams to point out the need to improve students' reading, which he says is the foundational skill in education.

“The English end-of-course exam results add more data to a troubling trend: far too many students lack the reading skills necessary to be successful in high school,” he said. “Improving reading skills in kindergarten through eighth grade must be a top priority in order to improve student achievement on high school assessments.”

By the Numbers

The state compiles average scores* for districts and schools on the end-of-course exams:

DistrictAlg. 1/Mathfor Tech. 2Biology 1/Applied Bio. 2English 1U.S. History andthe Constitution
Berkeley79.6 80.878.071.1
Charleston 82.7 85.6 80.1 74.2
Dorchester 2 82.8 84.6 80.4 74.0
Dorchester 476.473.875.5 66.5
State81.080.8 78.2 71.2
*The state uses a traditional 100-point grading scale for the exams, with scores of 93-100 earning an “A,” 92-85 earning a “B,” 84-77 earning a “C” and 76-70 earning a “D.” Anything less than that is an “F.” Online: To see individual schools' results, go to S.C. Department of Education

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