High school seniors lag in math, reading on national tests

High school students are getting better grades and taking more challenging courses, but that apparent progress is not showing up on national math and reading tests.

"The reality is that the results don't square," said Darvin Winick, chairman of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. Scores were released Thursday.

Nearly 40 percent of high school seniors scored below the basic level on the math test. More than a quarter of seniors failed to reach the basic level on the reading test. Most educators think students ought to be able to work at the basic level.

"I think that we are sleeping through a crisis," said Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll, a governing board member. He said the low test scores should push lawmakers and educators to enact school reforms.

The new reading scores show no change since 2002, the last time the test was given.

"We should be getting better. There's nothing good about a flat score," Winick said.

The government said it could not compare the math results with the previous scores because the latest test was significantly different.

Officials in the Cape Girardeau and Jackson school districts said students at their high schools don't take the National Assessment exams.

Jackson High School principal Rick McClard said such tests aren't commonly used in Missouri.

The state doesn't require high school students to take the National Assessment tests, said Cape Girardeau Central High School principal Dr. Mike Cowan. "It is an optional test," he said.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress -- often called the nation's report card -- offers a uniform national yardstick for how well students are learning.

The tests were given in 2005. The government released the scores Thursday along with a report examining the high school transcripts of 2005 graduates.

The transcript study shows high school students are earning more credits, taking more challenging courses and getting higher grade-point averages than in the past.

In 2005, high school graduates had an overall grade-point average just shy of 3.0 -- or about a B. That has gone up from a grade-point average of about 2.7 in 1990.

Cause unclear

It is unclear whether student performance has improved or whether grade inflation or something else might be responsible, the report said.

More students are completing high school with a standard curriculum, meaning they take at least four credits of English and three credits each of social studies, math and science. More students also are taking the next level of courses, which generally includes college preparatory classes.

"I'm guessing that those levels don't connote the level of rigor that we think they do. Otherwise kids would be scoring higher on the NAEP test," said David Gordon, a governing board member and the superintendent of schools in Sacramento, Calif.

The study showed no increase in the number of high-schoolers who completed the most advanced curriculum, which could include college-level or honors classes.

On the math test, about 60 percent of high school seniors performed at or above the basic level. At that level, a student should be able to convert a decimal to a fraction, for example.

On the reading test, about three-fourths of seniors performed at or above the basic level, while 40 percent hit the proficient mark.

Southeast Missourian staff writer Mark Bliss contributed to this story.