WASHINGTON, D.C. - It doesn't add up. Two federal reports out Thursday offer conflicting messages about how well high-schoolers are doing academically.
One showed that seniors did poorly on national math and reading tests.
The other - a review of high school transcripts from 2005 graduates - showed students earning more credits, taking more challenging courses and getting better grades.
"The reality is that the results don't square,'' said Darvin Winick, chair of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests.
'Sleeping through a crisis'
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.
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"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.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress - often called the nation's report card - is viewed as the best way to compare students across the country because it's the only uniform national yardstick for how well students are learning. The tests were given in 2005.
The transcript study showed that 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.
It is unclear whether student performance has improved or whether grade inflation or something else might be responsible for the higher grades, 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.
Mark Schneider, commissioner of the federal National Center for Education Statistics, said the government would conduct a study examining the rigor of high school courses.
The transcript study released Thursday 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.
Just one-fourth of 12th-graders were proficient or better in math, meaning they demonstrated solid academic performance. To qualify as "proficient,'' students might have to determine what type of graph should be used to display particular types of data.
On the reading test, about three-fourths of seniors performed at or above the basic level, while 40 percent hit the proficient mark.
Seniors working at a basic reading level can identify elements of an author's style. At the proficient level, they can make inferences from reading material, draw conclusions from it and make connections to their own experiences.
As in the past, the math and reading scores showed large achievement gaps between white students and minorities.
Forty-three percent of white students scored at or above proficient levels on the reading test, compared with 20 percent of Hispanic students and 16 percent of black students.
On the math test, 29 percent of white students reached the proficient level, compared with 8 percent of Hispanics and 6 percent of blacks.
The gap in reading scores between whites and minorities was relatively unchanged since 2002.
One of the stated goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law is to reduce the gaps in achievement between whites and minorities.
The law is up for review this year. It currently requires reading and math tests annually in grades three through eight and once in high school. The Bush administration wants to add more testing in high school.