Math and reading test scores: Massachusetts excels, West Virginia lags

Eleven states volunteered to have their 12th-graders’ test scores itemized in the latest NAEP report. Nationally, 26 percent of high school seniors scored at or above the 'proficient' level in math.

For the first time, the “Nation’s Report Card” includes rich state-level data on the math and reading skills of America’s 12th-graders.

Eleven states volunteered to have their results itemized in the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), allowing for comparisons across state lines and over time. Beyond the overall test scores, the state results also look at everything from achievement gaps between racial groups to the amount of reading the students do on a daily basis.

The data come at a time when the majority of states are trying to move toward a common set of reading and math standards, aimed at better ensuring that students graduate from high school with the skills they need for higher education or job training.

“The achievement of 12th-graders is an indicator of our nation’s potential human capital,” said former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, chairman of a commission to improve NAEP as an indicator of college readiness, at an event releasing the report Thursday. “These states want to have a measure of the output of the K-12 system that is ... credible, trustworthy, and rigorous.”

Nationally, 38 percent of 12th-graders scored at or above the “proficient” level in reading and 26 percent in math – an indication of “competency over challenging subject matter,” according to Thursday’s report.

“Without these skills, many entering college students will have to take remedial courses during their freshman year and will face long odds in their pursuit of a college degree,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, in a press statement.

Reading scores for 12th-graders have ticked up slightly since 2005, but have dipped when compared with 1992. The reading-score gaps between white students and their black and Hispanic counterparts haven’t budged.

In math, high school seniors have also made modest gains since 2005, the only test to which the new data can be compared.

It’s encouraging that more students are taking higher-level math classes, but the racial gaps at those higher levels are even more pronounced, notes Kathi King, a math teacher in Maine and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP.

In five of the 11 volunteer states, high school seniors bested the national average in both reading and math: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and South Dakota.

The other states that participated are Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, and West Virginia.

West Virginia showed the lowest overall scores for math and reading among the 11 states. But its African-American students achieved the highest reading scores, and the state has virtually no reading gap between black and white students.

The state also has the highest percentage of 12th-graders who read five pages or less per day – one factor that officials hope to improve as part of a comprehensive transformation of curriculum and teacher development, said state superintendent Steven Paine during the release event. The data, he said, are “a call to action to engage parents to promote reading at a very early age.”

In Arkansas, education officials are not surprised that higher NAEP scores are associated with a higher level of parents’ education and students’ aspirations for college. Both the governor and education officials are “working hard to create a culture ... of continuing education after high school,” says Julie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education.

This includes a new core curriculum that requires students to take math beyond Algebra II, including calculus or statistics – another factor associated with higher NAEP scores. Arkansas’s 12th-graders scored below the national NAEP average in both reading and math.

“The first step in solving the problem [of low high school achievement] is looking at it,... and for too long we’ve only had national 12th-grade numbers,” says Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust in Washington, which works to close achievement and opportunity gaps.

She adds, “Being able to see that Massachusetts is out front hopefully will mean some states will start turning to Massachusetts and saying, ‘How are you getting those results?’... And some will look at Connecticut and say, ‘Your gap [between racial groups] is outrageous.’ ”

The national data are based on a representative sample of about 50,000 students from more than 1,600 public and private schools. The state data are based only on public schools.

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