By ROB NOVIT Senior writer Aiken County School District 10th-graders who took the High School Assessment Program (HSAP) exit exam showed improvement over the performance of sophomores in 2006. The Aiken high school students did better overall than the state average in both English/language arts and math. African American students closed the achievement gap somewhat, and those in Aiken County did better than the state average as well. HSAP exams are graded on a scale of 1-4, with 4 being the highest and 2 being the lowest passing score. A total of 91.8 percent met or exceeded the standard in English, compared to 88.1 percent statewide. In math, 84.3 percent of Aiken sophomores were successful in meeting the standard, significantly higher than the 79.6 percent statewide. In Aiken County, 83 percent of all 10th-graders passed both components of HSAP on their first attempt, nearly six points ahead of the state average of 77.1. Successful completion of HSAP is a graduation requirement. However, students who failed one or both tests can take them again each semester through their senior year as needed, said Dr. David Mathis, Aiken County's associate superintendent for administration. A total of 85.1 percent of Aiken County's African American sophomores passed the English exam, and 71 percent passed the math HSAP. "Efforts to close the achievement gap are starting to pay off," said Mathis. "All the subgroups, including Hispanics, scored above the state average (compared to their ethnic group). But by no means are where we need to be yet." HSAP was established following the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test (PACT), which is aimed at grades 3-8. While HSAP is far more rigorous than the basic skills test that preceded it, Mathis can't say for sure than HSAP approaches the rigor of the PACT exams. Some higher-achieving students do have an advantage in taking the HSAP. Most took English I and Algebra I in eighth grade and thus have three years of those subjects at the high school level by the time they take the HSAP tests. Mathis said students who don't take Algebra I until their freshman year will probably find HSAP more difficult. Still other students who have historically struggled with math take Math Tech 1 as freshmen and Math Tech II as sophomores. The combined courses are considered the equivalent of Algebra I. Stiil, "Math Tech does meet the needs of some students," Mathis said. "There has been some discussion at the state level about these courses. But we have to recognize that some students need that foundation as they build their skills." Similarly, those who take English I as eighth-graders are more likely to be exposed to quality literature and writing opportunities. "These students have had more preparation through high school courses prior to high school," said Mathis. "The courses they take are aligned to the standards that are tested." The expectations are high and that's a good thing," said Aiken High School principal Garen Cofer. "If we're going to prepare these kids for life, they need to have challenges," he said. "It's tough and demanding and overall, it's good for them." South Carolina is one of the few states that requires 24 units for graduate. It's in even more select company in also mandating the exit exam. "It's not difficult to get 24 units," said Cofer. "Teachers want to see students graduate and I see them staying after school to help students." The HSAP results are used as a component by the U.S. Department of Education to determine if high schools meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. The No Child Left Behind Act doesn't recognize the score of 2 as passing. South Carolina officials -- as well as district officials such as Mathis -- have repeatedly pointed out that South Carolina's proficiency definition is much higher than most other states nationally. Contact Rob Novit at rnovit@aikenstandard.com. Here's how Aiken County high school sophomores last spring fared on the HSAP English and math tests. The numbers accompanying each school reflect the percentage that met or exceeded standard in English/language arts -- Aiken High (92.3 percent), Midland Valley (89.9); North Augusta (93.4); Ridge Spring-Monetta (89.3); Silver Bluff (92.3); South Aiken (92.9); Wagener-Salley (82.3). The numbers in this list indicate the percentage of students who met or exceeded the standard in math -- Aiken High (83.5 percent); Midland Valley (82.8); North Augusta (86.5); RS-M (82.1); Silver Bluff (83.3); South Aiken (86.1); Wagener-Salley (80.6). The Aiken Performing Arts Academy had 17 sophomores last spring. A total of 94.1 percent met or exceeded the standard in English and 77.8 percent in math.