- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

More 2005 high school graduates took challenging classes and got higher grades than their peers a few years prior, but overall, large percentages of high school seniors are scoring poorly on reading and math tests, two new reports found yesterday.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said these results mean “we have our work cut out for us,” in providing quality education.

“If, in fact, our high school students are taking more challenging courses and earning higher grades, we should be seeing greater gains in test scores,” she said, after the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP).

These reading and math tests, released by the government yesterday, were given in 2005 to a representative sample of more than 21,000 high school seniors from 900 schools. Accompanying that report was a separate study examining the transcripts of 2005 high school graduates.

According to the NAEP, nearly 40 percent of high school seniors didn’t perform at the basic level on the math test and 23 percent performed at or above proficient level.

The average reading scores didn’t change much since 2002 but declined since 1992. Seventy-three percent of 2005 high school seniors performed at or above basic reading level, meaning more than a quarter of seniors didn’t reach that threshold.

In 2000, about 13 percent of high school graduates completed standard course work, and 36 percent went beyond and completed midlevel course work, according to the transcript study. Those percentages increased in 2005, to 17 percent and 41 percent.

The 2005 graduates also carried a slightly higher grade point average — about a 3.0 — than 2000 graduates and notably higher than the 2.7 GPA in 1990. The study noted “many possible reasons” for the increase, including grade inflation, changes in grading standards and practices, and growth in student performance.

Lawmakers and education researchers agreed that improvement is needed but disagreed on the best way of getting there — with some arguing the federal government should get more involved in high schools and some saying that is exactly the wrong approach.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is working to improve our nation’s elementary and middle schools, and we must act now to increase rigor in our high schools and improve graduation rates,” Mrs. Spellings said, touting President Bush’s proposal for more testing and improved curricula in high schools as part of his suggestions for renewing the law.

House education panel Chairman Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, called the scores a “disappointment” and said that as lawmakers work to renew federal education law for younger students “part of our charge will be to develop strategies for helping our struggling high schools,” such as recruiting better teachers and ensuring all students have access to advanced courses.

Neal McClusky, education policy analyst at the Cato Institute, noted that the disappointing scores come despite “huge increases in per-pupil expenditures, the installation of ‘standards and accountability’ mechanisms all around the country, and ever-greater federal intervention” in America’s schools.

“With all this in mind, the lesson from the latest NAEP scores is clear: American education needs fundamental restructuring away from the top-down, government control that has wrought regular academic failure, to a system that empowers parents to take their children and tax dollars out of broken public schools and put them into institutions that work,” he said.

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