COLUMBIA, S.C. - The passing rate on South Carolina's high school exit exam fell for the first time in four years, according to data released Tuesday by the state Education Department. Of the roughly 51,400 first-time test takers, 76 percent passed both the English and math sections. That's down from 81 percent in 2008, the state's best showing. The results match those posted in 2004, the first year for the revamped exit exam. School officials say the backward slide after three years of improvements is puzzling. Whether it marks a downward trend or a "random blip" won't be known until next year's results, said state schools chief Jim Rex. But he said he's concerned the dip is a symptom of budget cuts in education during the recession. The cuts "put pressure on schools just to maintain their core programs at a time when so many of our students have much greater needs," he said. But a spokeswoman for the Education Oversight Committee notes students took the test in the spring, before the brunt of the cuts took effect. If the budget cuts affect scores, then test results could continue to get worse, said Dana Yow. "The results are discouraging, especially after the gains we've seen," she said. Students initially take the test in their second year of high school - generally, their sophomore year - and must pass to graduate. Those who don't pass both sections have multiple chances to retake any part they failed. About half of states nationwide require students to pass a test to receive a diploma. Broken down by subject, 80 percent of initial test-takers passed the math portion this year, down 4.4 percentage points from 2008, and 85 percent passed English, down 2.8 percentage points. The High School Assessment Program also is used to judge how well high schools are progressing on state and federal education goals. The tests are scored on a scale of 1 to 4. While the state considers 2 passing, federal evaluations are based only on the higher scores. The federal No Child Left Behind law says all students must score 'proficient' or 'advanced' by 2014. Students scoring at least a 3 declined from 56 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in math, and from 59 percent to 50 percent in English. The slides come in a year when the benchmarks ramp up for meeting federal education goals. That likely means significantly fewer schools will make "adequate yearly progress." That data is expected in January. The results were quickly highlighted by critics of public education. The president of a group that advocates legislation to help parents send their children to private school said parents should be worried. "Each and every child in South Carolina deserves access to great classrooms, tailored instruction, and a meaningful diploma," said Randy Page. "No one's child should be a 'random blip.'" Before 2004, South Carolina high school students had to pass the Basic Skills Assessment Program to graduate - a pass-or-fail test developed in the 1980s. The High School Assessment Program is based on the state's more rigorous academic standards crafted under a 1998 state law.