12th-graders lag on test despite harder courses, better grades
Gannett News Service
Feb. 23, 2007

 Ledyard King 

WASHINGTON - Average reading scores for 12th-graders nationwide continue to languish despite a new study that suggests seniors are taking tougher courses and getting higher grades.

The average reading score in 2005 was 286 out of 500, about the same as it was three years ago and lower than it was in 1992, according to a report released Thursday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Less than one quarter of seniors tested showed proficiency on the math section, but comparisons with previous years couldn't be made because of differences in the new exam. Both reading and math results showed achievement by whites significantly higher than that of blacks and Hispanics. The test, which sampled more than 21,000 high school seniors from 900 public and private schools, is the only nationally representative test administered on a regular basis.

The findings, coupled with a similar lack of growth in 2005 science scores released last year, suggest that students are barely treading water academically. But another National Assessment of Educational Progress study, also issued Thursday, indicates that high school students are taking more challenging courses and earning higher grades.

The conflicting trends have triggered a lot of head scratching.

David Gordon, superintendent of schools in Sacramento County, Calif., said the results show a "rigor gap" between what schools say they're teaching and what students are actually learning.

"It's important that what we teach and how it's taught must be inspected, course by course, textbook by textbook," Gordon said Thursday at a news conference announcing the findings.

In 1990, only 40 percent of graduates completed at least a standard curriculum, which consists of four math credits and three each of math, social studies and science, according to a study of 26,000 transcripts from students at about 700 high schools. By 2005, 68 percent had.

During that same 15-year period, the overall grade point average of sampled seniors improved from 2.68, out of 4.00, to 2.98.

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler said students too often are fooled into thinking they're learning what they need for college and work only to find out they have to undergo remedial training once they get out of high school.

"We're not doing them a favor," said Engler, a Republican, who now is president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Researchers say the mixed picture could be due to several factors: students getting grade point bonuses for non-performance, such as attendance; mediocre teaching; and course descriptions that are puffed up to sound more rigorous than they are.