12th grade test scores improve but bigger gains still needed

A national assessment of 12th-grade math and reading taken in 2009 shows student scores improved compared to tests taken by high school seniors four years earlier. However, the tests still show high percentages of students are scoring below even a “basic” level in those subjects, and reading scores are lower than levels in 1992.

The results coming from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provide just a snapshot of all 12th graders in the nation because the test was given in only 11 states that volunteered to participate in the pilot state program.  Those states are Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Nationally, mathematics samples of approximately 50,000 12th-graders had the following results:

  • The average mathematics score in 2009 was three points higher than in 2005.
  • Average math scores improved for all racial/ethnic groups and for male and female students.
  • The percentages of students scoring at or above “proficient” (26 percent) and at or above “basic” (64 percent) in math were higher in 2009 than in 2005.

The increase in the average reading score for the nation’s 12th-graders was slightly lower than the increase in math scores – a two percent increase over 2005 scores. Thirty-eight percent performed at or above the proficient level. However the score was four points lower than the first reading assessment in 1992.

There was little rejoicing over the achievement gains coming from the U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan when the results were released on November 18. “(This) report suggests that high school seniors’ achievement in reading and math isn’t rising fast enough to prepare them to succeed in college and careers,” he said. “They’ll only succeed if we challenge and support them to raise their academic performance and offer them the financial support they need to pay for college.”

Unlike other NAEP assessments, which are given to all students in grades four and eight, the testing is voluntary for high school seniors. Iowa’s acting director of the Department of Education, Karen Fangman, explained, “Iowa participated in this program for the fundamental reason that we value education and hold high expectations for student achievement. As we continue to move forward with implementation of the Iowa Core and focus on 21st century learning, assessments such as NAEP contribute to our understanding of what works in the classroom and where we have room to improve."

Iowa topped national averages in both reading and math scores. However, it was Massachusetts’ Governor Deval Patrick who had bragging rights for the top scores among the 11 participating states in both subjects.

“I am proud of the performance of our students, and today’s announcement reaffirms our position as a national leader in education,” said Governor Patrick. “We will continue on this path of success and increase our efforts to ensure all students are prepared for the rigors of college and a future in the workforce.”

Compared to the 11-state average, mathematics and reading scores at grade 12 were higher in Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota. They were lower than the national average in Arkansas, Florida and West Virginia.

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