Eight Southern States Compare Student Achievement

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High-school juniors in eight Southern states have reading and writing skills that, for the most part, equal those of their counterparts across the nation, according to a new study by the Southern Regional Education Board.

The generally positive performance of more than 20,000 Southern students, compared with their peers nationwide, "challenges traditional views about the poor quality of education in the South," states the report. which was released this week.

As is true nationally, however, the majority of Southern students did not score well enough to do college- level work, according to the report, "Measuring Student Achievement: Comparable Test Results for Participating Southern States, the South, and the Nation."

The study provides state-by-state, regional, and national data on how a sample of 11th graders scored on a selected group of reading and writing items from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Five states--Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and West Virginia-tested the reading : skills of a sample of 2,000 11th graders in the public schools last spring.

Seven states-Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia-- tested the writing skills of a similar group of students.

The testing project marks only the second time that a group of states has collected data enabling them to gauge their students' achievement in relation to other members of the group and the nation as a whole.

Although the Council of Chief State School Officers is working on a way to compare student performance across states, school officials have traditionally been wary of such efforts.

Originally, the congressionally mandated NAEP was designed in such a way that state comparisons would be impossible. And as recently 88 three years ago, many educators thought reaching agreement on such a process was unlikely.

'Good News'

Students' reading achievement in all of the participating states was comparable to the national average, except in Louisiana, which scored significantly lower.

Similarly, of those state of participating in the writing assessment, only Louisiana had an average achievement level below that of the country as a whole.

"Considering that a half century ago states forming the R.E.B. region were the economic and educational stepchild of the nation," the report states, "the results are astounding.

"When we consider that the real impact of the recent educational reforms is yet to be seen," it continues, "the present standing is very good news."

Rebecca S. Christian, assistant director of testing in the Louisiana education department, said he had hoped Louisiana's students would score higher on the exams.

"The focus of our state testing program and our instructional program has been primarily on minimum competency," she said. "We think the focus on minimum standards has perhaps affected the achievement of the average to above-average student."

The state is in the process of moving away from an emphasis on basic level skills, she said.

In addition, she noted that demographic factors could have lowered Louisiana's overall test results. About 44 percent of Louisiana's public-school students are minorities, compared to a national average of about 27 percent, based on 1981 figures from the U.s. Education Department. Minority students traditionally score lower than white students on standardized tests.

Private and parochial schools in the state-which enroll some 17 percent of all Louisiana students-may also be luring the brightest youngsters away from the public schools, causing scores to be lower, Ms. Christian said.

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College Readiness

Some of the study's most disappointing findings pertained to the readiness of high-school students to do college-level work, according to Mark D. Musick, director of state services and information for the S.R.E.B.

Only about 40 percent of 11th graders in the eight states were reading well enough to begin college, the study notes, And only 30 percent wrote at the level required of a college freshman, compared with about 32 percent nationally.

"Yet the number of high-school students going to college is a good bit higher than this," the report states.

As is true nationwide, the states also found a large gap between the reading and writing achievement of black and white students.

The reading achievement of black 11th graders was basically the same as that of white 7th graders. Only half as many black as white students- 14 percent versus 28 percent- wrote at the level required for college work.

S.R.E.B. officials warned that the findings regarding black students' performance should "lead all states to take note."

According to the report, poor reading performance, in particular, is part of the reason that "unacceptably small numbers of black students are enrolling in and graduating from college."

Future Plans

The cost of the assessment for each state that tested students in both reading and writing was $55,000, Mr. Musick said. States that did only one or the other paid $37,500.

The S.R.E.B.last week mailed a letter inviting its 15 member states to participate next year in the joint project between the states, the S.R.E.B., and the Educational Testing Service, which administers NAEP.

The plans are to test 11th graders in mathematics, reading. and United States history. Mr. Musick said he does not expect a reply from the states for about a month.

Vol. 06, Issue 04, Page 5

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