Schools across the state and in all Lowcountry school districts made noticeable gains this year on the end-of-course exam in physical science, although more than half the students who took the test statewide still received an F.
Results on end-of-course exams released Friday showed the state's mean score on physical science tests jumping from 69.2 last year to 70.7 this year. Scores on the English exam declined from a mean score of 76.1 last year to 74.4 this year, while algebra scores remained steady.
The exams count for 20 percent of a student's final course grade and are designed to examine if students' knowledge aligns with state standards.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said he intends to meet with subject-area specialists and compile an internal report on why the overall passing rates remain low. Rex said he's still concerned with the state's physical science results, where 50.3 percent of all test-takers failed the exam.
"There's obviously something wrong with the test or the instruction or both," Rex said. "You don't ever want to see anything near that level of failure."
Rex said he suspects some of the problem lies with recruiting and retaining teachers. College science majors can pick from a long list of career options, and many are more profitable than teaching, he said.
Although failure rates in physical science remained high, some local districts were pleased with their success on the exam compared with last year's results. Dorchester District 2's mean score in physical science spiked by nearly six percentage points, moving up to 78.5 this year. More than 41 percent of students in the district failed the test last year, but less than 25 percent received an F this year.
At Fort Dorchester High School, more than 35 percent of students earned an A or B on the physical science test. Cathy McClam, who serves as science department chairwoman, credited the increase to a new course structure where students take algebra before physical science. When students took the courses at the same time, some had not learned enough algebra before tackling the math-heavy physical science curriculum, she said.
"Everyone now has more experience with math," McClam said. "If they have a better math background, it will be easier for them to grasp some of the concepts in physical science."
McClam also said the Education Department clarified some of the "broad" science standards last year, making it easier for teachers to plan streamlined lessons.
Dorchester District 2 tallied the highest mean scores in the Lowcountry on all three subjects tested. Scores in the Charleston County School District beat the state's results and improved from last year in algebra and physical science. Charleston's mean English score fell just short of the state average and decreased nearly two percentage points from last year.
Janet Rose, Charleston's executive director of assessment and accountability, said the district is creating tests for students to take at the end of each nine-week grading period in core subjects. Those interim tests will help prepare students for the exams at the end of the year, she said.
Rose attributed some of the results to the fact that students have only taken end-of-course exams for a few years. "A lot of it is just the students and teachers still getting used to the exams," she said.
In Berkeley County, mean scores were lower than the state's results in all three subjects. In mirroring the state's results, Berkeley's scores increased in physical science and algebra but fell in English.
Rural Dorchester District 4's mean score in physical science rose to 78 from a 63.2 last year. But Superintendent Jerry Montjoy said the results are misleading because only 12 students took the physical science exam. The district is changing its sequence of science courses and now offers biology before physical science. The switch took place during the 2006-07 school year, meaning that ninth-graders and tenth-graders both took biology and only recent transfers were enrolled in physical science class.