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Report: Nation's public schools are improving, but still have a long way to go

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 10:54 AM

The nation's high school seniors are performing slightly better in math and reading than they did in the middle of the last decade, new test results show, but a large majority continue to fall short of the federal standard for proficiency.

Results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, made public Thursday morning, documented a modest rise in achievement for 12th-graders since 2005. Reading scores rose two points on a 500-point scale, and math scores rose three points on a 300-point scale.

But analysts said the federal test results offer plenty of reason for concern. The scores mean that 38 percent of seniors demonstrated proficiency in reading and 26 percent reached that level in math. In addition, reading scores remain lower than they were in 1992. And the report found essentially no progress in closing achievement gaps that separate white students from black and Hispanic peers.

Those results suggest that public schools must make quantum leaps to approach President Obama's goal of college and career readiness for all graduates. The District of Columbia and dozens of states (including Maryland but not Virginia) have adopted this year new national standards for what students should learn in math and English language arts from kindergarten onward. Those standards, generally accepted to be tougher than the array of benchmarks states had previously held, also point toward the president's goal.

"We've got a huge mountain to climb if we're serious about college readiness for everyone," said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.

Finn said the federal test results have implications for the nation's ability to compete globally. "We're not getting worse," he said, "but we're not getting better. And the rest of the world is getting better faster."

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said: "With the entire flurry over reform and major pushes among states, the results are not showing the upward trends we want to see."

The tests were given to a national sample of about 52,000 students in reading and 49,000 in math. Because the math testing was retooled in 2005, no comparisons were possible to math results from earlier years.

Eleven states (not including Maryland or Virginia) also volunteered for a testing program that shows how their own high school seniors are performing. Results indicate that seniors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, Connecticut and South Dakota beat the national average in reading and math. Students in Arkansas, Florida and West Virginia scored lower than the average in both subjects. Results were mixed in Idaho, Illinois and New Jersey.

In reading, students were asked to respond to multiple choice and written questions on literary and informational texts. One such text shown in the report was a rental housing agreement.

In math, students were asked to show a range of skills in algebra, statistics, data analysis and geometry.

Experts note one challenge with the federal testing: High school seniors are often weary of tests, and it's unclear how much effort they put into an assessment that doesn't count toward their grades or college applications.

Results are available at www.nationsreportcard.gov.

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