By SEANNA ADCOX
COLUMBIA - South Carolina's sophomores have ushered out the final year of the high school exit exam with their worst passing rate since 2009.
Data posted on the state Education Department website shows that 77.4 percent of first-time test-takers passed both the English and math sections of the High School Assessment Program last spring.
That's down from 82 percent in 2013. The passing rate had been climbing upward since 2009 when it was 76.4 percent.
Education officials say a new law signed in April abolishing the exit exam could partly explain the drop. They suggested some students might have put forth less effort knowing their scores carried no personal consequence.
"We don't know the exact extent, but we do think it had something to do with it given the time frame," Dana Yow, spokeswoman for the state Education Oversight Committee, said Thursday.
South Carolina Education Superintendent Mick Zais said in a Friday news release that the drop in scores, particularly in math, was disappointing.
"While the requirement to pass an exit exam has been eliminated in South Carolina, we must continue striving for high-level achievement by all students. Next year, students will be taking an assessment to determine their college and career readiness along with WorkKeys, and we must work together to ensure improved outcomes on these tests," Zais said.
The scores will still be used to grade high schools and districts on 2014 state report cards issued this fall.
The law, signed April 14, ended the three-decade-old requirement that students pass an exit exam to graduate, starting with the Class of 2015. Students across the state took the High School Assessment Program between April 1 and April 18. By April 1, both the House and Senate had already given the measure overwhelming approval. The final vote was April 9.
Beginning with this school year, the HSAP won't exist at all. Instead, 11th graders will take two tests considered more useful to students' future success, with scores that can go on work resumes or college admissions applications.
Previously, students had to pass both the math and English sections of the exit exam to graduate, initially taking the tests in their second year of high school. Those who didn't pass both on their first attempt had several chances to retake any part they failed.
Under the law, former students who didn't graduate solely because of the exam can petition their school board to retroactively receive a diploma. The petition deadline is Dec. 31, 2015.
Just 7 percent of 2012-13 high school seniors didn't receive a diploma because they couldn't pass both sections before the school year ended, according to the Education Department.
The switch from HSAP follows recommendations by the independent Education Oversight Committee. The nearly $4 million the state has spent on HSAP will be redirected to the other tests.
The law specifies that one will be ACT's WorkKeys, a work-skills assessment system that awards certificates for qualifying scores, from bronze to platinum, which students can take to employers. The state Chamber of Commerce pushed for WorkKeys as a practical test that help match students to jobs.
The other will test for college readiness. That could be either the SAT or ACT college-entrance exam.