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Education: More WHS students take AP tests with better results

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

More Waccamaw High students are taking Advanced Placement exams and more are scoring high enough to qualify for college credits, according to results released this week.

At the same time, results of state standardized tests show that a quarter of Waccamaw students failed their end-of-course exams in Algebra I and U.S. History. Algebra was the only subject where Waccamaw lagged in the district as a whole, where 15 percent of students failed the exam.

“We’re working on some things there, some enrichment programs,” said Waccamaw High principal David Hammel. “Overall, we stayed right about where we were.”

The district changed high school schedules in 2011 to accommodate a growing emphasis by the state Department of Education on the end-of-course exams. Block schedules of 90 minutes with courses changing at mid year were replaced with seven-period schedules and courses that run the full year. Since then, the percentage of students passing the end-of-course exams has risen from 72 to 82 percent.

The exams are also given in Biology I and English I, the two subjects where WHS students had the best results. In biology, 91.4 percent passed. In English, 86.7 percent passed. In the district, 27 percent failed the biology exam and 24 percent failed the English exam.

“We’ve had years as high as 88 percent in Algebra,” Hammel said. “It’s hard to tell if it’s the group of kids.”

The exams are an accountability measure. The school gets no information about how students fared on the curriculum standards contained in the exams. “It’s not to help the kids improve,” Hammel said.

He gets more information from the AP exams. There were 160 students who took the exams at Waccamaw High last year, a rise of 42 percent. They took 50 percent more tests, which are given in a growing number of subjects. And nearly 60 percent scored high enough to earn college credit compared with just under 50 percent the year before.

The school has AP social studies exams in each grade level. There were 30 freshmen in Human Geography last year and 70 percent got college-credit scores, Hammel said.

“That beat the odds,” he said of the overall results. With more students taking the exams “you would expect the pass rate to go down. That speaks to how well our teachers are instructing and the dedication of the students.”

The trend around the state has been toward more students taking AP exams. That was true in the district, with only Carvers Bay High seeing a drop in AP students. But all county high schools saw a rise in the percentage of students earning college credit.

Scores on the SAT, another measure of college readiness, were also released this week. Eighty-one percent of the senior class at Waccamaw took the exams last year, a rise from 74 percent. Their average score in reading rose 6 points to 501 out of 800. The average math score was unchanged at 494. The average writing score dropped 32 points to 476. The school’s scores were above the state and district averages.

The SAT scores don’t always reflect a complete picture of student ability because many students take the exams in their junior year and are able to pick their best scores from multiple sittings, Hammel explained. But the state doesn’t record the best results a student scores, only the last result. “It’s a measure, but we could make it a truer measure,” he said.

The district has put more emphasis on college prep, including an expansion of a partnership with Horry-Georgetown Technical College that lets high school students take college-level classes. “It is important that each student can compete for college scholarships, can qualify for jobs and can pursue any career he or she chooses after high school graduation,” said Patti Hammel, the district’s director of student performance.

The school board is also preparing to revise its career education programs. “It’s an epidemic in Georgetown County,” said LaPariscena Singleton, the district’s director of career and technology education. “We’re on the move.”

New career facilities are likely to be included in a capital projects plan the district is preparing with an eye to a bond referendum in the next few years. “I fully support going forward,” Board Member Richard Kerr said. “Facilities and where we locate them is going to be really key.”

Adding a career center at Waccamaw High is one option. “That’s the next big thing,” Hammel said. “Along with an auxiliary gym, that’s the biggest need.”

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