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      Report Card: On-time graduation rate down; performance up

      COLUMBIA (WACH, AP) -- South Carolina's on-time graduation rate dropped in 2010 to 72 percent, representing the sixth decrease in nine years, according to state report card data released Thursday by the state Education Department.

      It was a mixed bag of results statewide. While the percentage of students who graduated in four years with a regular diploma fell 1.6 percentage points, from 74 percent in 2009, state report card ratings for high schools and school districts mostly improved.

      The state's new Republican schools chief focused on the graduation rate, saying it shows the need for more innovation and creativity.

      "The bottom line is that slightly more than one in four students fail to graduate on time and this is not acceptable," said state Superintendent Mick Zais. "The graduation rate is a measure of the cumulative effect of the entire public education system. Students vary enormously in their ability, their aspirations, their interests, and their needs and we need to provide educational options. One size fits all does not work in our curricula."

      The executive director of the state Education Oversight Committee said the 1.6 percentage-point drop was not statistically significant. But Jo Anne Anderson added that any decline is bad: "We cannot afford to lose a single student."

      South Carolina posted a graduation rate high of 78 percent in 2003. Since 2002, the state has calculated its graduation rate using a federally approved method, which all states must use by year's end. South Carolina's 2010 rating ranks 14th among the 22 states that already do.

      State report cards on elementary and middle schools were released last November.

      Report cards for high schools and districts were delayed because the state required more thorough documentation in tracking students for graduation rates to, for example, prove a student transferred to another school rather than dropped out. District ratings had to wait for high school results.

      Among the state's 209 public high schools, about 60 percent posted a drop in graduation rates. Education officials said it's unclear whether that's due to an actual drop or better tracking.

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      Students who take five years to graduate or receive a GED, as well as disabled students who receive a certificate rather than a diploma, do not count toward the graduation rate. Education officials say the state will release a separate rate for 2011 that includes graduates who spend five years in high school, though it won't count for federal reporting purposes.

      Clearly, Zais said, "students who graduate in five years are much better off than dropouts."

      Across the state, the graduation rate ranged between 100 percent at Mayo High School for Math, Science and Technology, a magnet school in Darlington for the academically gifted, to 42 percent at North Charleston High School.

      As for report cards, schools receive one of five ratings in both overall performance and improvement: excellent, good, average, below average and at risk. In 2010, 84 high schools rated in the top two categories, while 30 were in the bottom two, compared to 61 and 43 respectively in 2009.

      Statewide, 64 high schools improved their overall rating, 31 posted declines, and 100 stayed the same.

      Among the state's 86 districts, five rated excellent, up from just one in 2009. Six were in the worst tier, down from 21 in 2009.

      Of the 25 high schools in Richland, Lexington, and Kershaw counties, 22 scored an average or better score reflecting the statewide gains.

      Along with graduation rates, high school ratings are based on students' results their first time taking the exit exam, generally their sophomore year, and end-of-course tests usually taken their freshman and sophomore years.

      South Carolina is among about half of states nationwide that require students to pass an exit exam to earn a diploma. It is among nine states that require 24 credits to graduate -- the highest number -- while the national average is 21.

      Proposals in the Legislature would allow students to earn a diploma with 20 credits. Zais said he has not studied those bills yet. They have yet to receive a legislative hearing. Critics oppose it as lowering standards.

      "Every student who finishes our high schools should have the knowledge, the skills and the attitude to be productive members of society," said Zais.

      Report cards on elementary and middle schools are based on results of standardized tests taken by third- through eighth-graders, as well as attendance.

      District report cards show that the percentage of students living in poverty continues to increase. On average, 76 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, up 1.4 percentage points from 2009. In a quarter of schools statewide, at least 90 percent of students are considered poor.

      Click here to see the report cards for all school districts in South Carolina.

      Do you agree with state Superintendent Mick Zais' statement that the state education system needs to get more creative?

      (The Associated Press contributed to this report.)