Superintendent Molly Spearman

State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman speaks with a student in a September 2015 file photo from a visit to Summerville High School. File/Staff

South Carolina's high school graduation jumped by more than two percentage points in 2016, according to data released by the S.C. Department of Education.

In a press release trumpeting the new four-year graduation rate of 82.6 percent, S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman called the improved numbers "a true testament to the collaborative effort" of students, parents and educators.

The state's graduation rate, like most nationwide, has been climbing steadily in the past decade. Meanwhile, scores on standardized tests for college and career readiness have flat-lined or dropped in some cases.

Particularly in South Carolina, climbing graduation rates have not always translated into real-world success. Recent ACT assessments showed three-quarters of the class of 2017 was not on track for college. Earlier this year, a report from the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative found that two in three local high school graduates weren’t ready for college-level coursework, while one in three weren't prepared to enter the workforce. 

Charleston County School District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait has criticized using graduation rates as meaningful indicators of success. Following the release of the Cradle to Career report, she called the graduation rate "an old, antiquated measure" that "does not equate college readiness."

"It's always cause for celebration when our graduation rates go up, and I want to be unequivocally clear about that," Postlewait said Tuesday. "My concern is that over time the high school diploma itself has lost its meaning as a career-readiness document."

She continued, "In this high-tech, high-information economy, the level of achievement that’s required of young men and women entering the marketplace is often much higher than and different from the achievement indicators in place to earn a high school diploma."

Charleston County was home to the four schools with the lowest graduation rates in the tri-county area: Greg Mathis Charter High (19.2 percent), St. John's High (56.7 percent), Stall High (65.2 percent) and North Charleston High (68.8 percent).

Berkeley County Middle College High and Charleston County's Academic Magnet High both had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Four-year graduation rates were 81.7 percent for Berkeley County School District; 82.9 percent in Charleston County School District; 87.8 percent for Dorchester County School District 2; and 85.8 percent for Dorchester County School District 4.

While Berkeley County's graduation rate fell below the state average, Superintendent Brenda Blackburn pointed to above-average performance on the new ACT WorkKeys assessment, which is meant to measure career readiness. About 90 percent of Berkeley County juniors earned WorkKeys certification, compared to 87 percent statewide.

"Our population continues to grow every year and we have students that come from other parts of the state or parts of the country that haven’t been in our system for the whole 12 years," said BCSD Deputy Superintendent Archie Franchini. "So that’s something that can certainly to have an impact on graduation rates."

In Dorchester 4, Superintendent Morris Ravenell said he was pleased to see his students surpassing state averages on the new SC PASS science and social studies assessments. The four-year graduation rate there also jumped significantly, from 81.6 percent to 85.8 percent.

Ravenell said one focus this year will be on catching students up to the state averages on ACT scores and end-of-course pass rates.

"Overall I am pleased with the results and proud of the efforts that our student and staff have put in over the past school year," Ravenell said.

Tuesday marks the release of a newly reformatted state report card that features most of the same data from previous years but in a more interactive online format. It is meant to be based on the state's new Profile of the South Carolina Graduate, which includes categories like "World Class Knowledge," "World Class Skills" and "Life and Career Characteristics."

This year's district and school report cards do not include an overall or growth rating. Under state laws meant to overhaul the S.C. Department of Education's accountability system, the state will not give those ratings again until the fall of 2017.

The state used to grade every school and district on a scale of "At-Risk" to "Excellent," a system that critics said scared some families off from their neighborhood schools that were called "At-Risk." While several Charleston County schools received At-Risk ratings on 2014 report cards, the district as a whole celebrated its first and only year with an overall Excellent rating in 2014.

To look up report card data for your school or district, visit the S.C. Department of Education website.

Deanna Pan contributed to this report. 

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.