Higher Grades, Lower Scores

Posted: Mar 08, 2007 12:01 AM

After all those years of educators focusing on improving the basics in public schools, how is it possible that the National Assessment for Educational Progress just gave America's high school seniors their lowest score for reading since 1992?

Students in elementary school have improved their skills in reading, writing and math, but the improvement "stops in middle school and completely stops in high school," answered Jim Lanich, president of California Business for Educational Excellence in Sacramento and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, who called me from a NAGB meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

The new NAEP report found that the percentage of high school seniors who read at or above basic levels decreased from 80 percent in 1992 to 73 percent in 2005. A mere 23 percent of seniors were rated as proficient in math, even though students were allowed to use calculators for one-third of the test.

More bad news: Despite an all-out effort from the federal and state governments, the achievement gap between white and minority students remains essentially unchanged. President Bush challenged the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Many educators say they now expect more from all students, but they are not delivering.

Grade inflation could be a culprit here. Another report released last month, the Nation's Report Card on high school graduates, found that seniors' overall grade point averages for 2005 had risen one-third of a letter grade since 1990. Also, high school graduates reported that they were taking more rigorous courses -- but if the courses were more rigorous, their reading and math skills should have improved.

Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools Dave Gordon, who is also a NAGB member, sees a "rigor gap" and an achievement gap. The NAEP report found students who ostensibly are taking calculus, but "are not even at the top of proficient range" in the NAEP math tests. African Americans in calculus classes often score below proficient.

And you can't say the problem is that the NAEP test underrates students -- not when universities are admitting top students, only to find that they're not prepared for college course work. Last year, the California State University System found that fewer than half of its freshmen were proficient in both math and English -- with about one-third of freshmen were forced to take remedial courses.

Lanich believes that schools should evaluate students entering middle and high school to get a firm handle on where individual students need to improve -- "and not just expect them to be absorbed and taught without any adjustments being made to their particular needs."

In California, the high school exit exam -- which members of the class of 2006 had to pass in order to graduate -- should push up the number of graduates who perform at or above basic levels. (Note that the NAEP report was a national test conducted in 2005.)

At last, the focus is on individual student achievement. The exit exam is not my idea of challenging -- to graduate from high school, students have to answer 55 percent of eighth-grade level math questions and 60 percent of 10th-grade level English language arts correctly. But the test, at least, has forced some students to learn skills they will need as adults.

About 300,000 (out of close to 440,000) high school freshmen from the class of 2006 passed the exit exam on their first try. Another 100,000 students had to take the English or math or both portions as many as six times until they passed. Because state schools chief Jack O'Connell fought off legal challenges to keep a passing score on the exit exam from being a graduation requirement, those students know they earned their diplomas.

For a writer, the saddest statistic is the decline in student scores for "reading for literary experience" -- from 290 (out of 500) in 1992 to 279 in 2005. "I don't find that surprising, considering the things that young people are bombarded with," Gordon noted. "It's tough to get kids interested in reading."

He's right. Kids are so wired today -- to television, the Internet and videogames -- it's amazing that they have an attention span at all. But that doesn't mean the schools can give up on them. As Lanich put it, "Kids don't have a shelf life, and they need help today."