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Nevada students improve on test

Nevada’s fourth- and eighth-grade students showed modest improvements overall on a national standardized test but still lagged behind their peers in other states, according to results released Tuesday.

About 12,000 Silver State students in the fourth and eighth grades took the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam between January and March.

The exam, also known as the nation’s report card, compares student scores from those grades in math and reading with their peers nationwide. Students last took the exam in 2005.

Nevada’s fourth-graders showed slight increases in math, receiving an average score of 232, up from 230 in 2005. But that was well below the national average of 239. A perfect score is 500 points.

The largest gains were shown in reading by the state’s fourth-graders, who improved the state’s average score to 211 from 207 in 2005. The national average was 220.

The reading scores of Nevada’s eighth-graders dipped slightly to 252 from 253 in 2005.

The 2007 results showed Nevada’s students consistently among the nation’s five poorest-performing states.

Nevada Superintendent Keith Rheault said he viewed the results as positive because Nevada’s students improved for the most part. He said the public must be aware that Nevada has some of the most challenging student demographics in the nation.

Nevada had the second-highest percentage of students whose primary language is not English taking the exam.

Rheault said 23 percent of Nevada’s students who took the exam in 2007 were considered deficient in English. Only California had a higher percentage of English-deficient students, he said.

“Not all student populations are the same for every state,” Rheault said.

The lower scores are to be expected, Rheault said of Nevada’s students who are not proficient in English.

Charles Smith, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, said the exam is important because it gives federal and state officials an opportunity to gauge how students measure up.

But, Smith said, the exam does not offer any explanation as to why student scores are increasing or decreasing.

“Our assessment does not measure cause and effect,” he said. “It’s very important state officials examine the whys.”

Federal officials chose students to take the test based on information provided by the Nevada Department of Education. The sample of students who were chosen must proportionally represent the demographics of a state.

National scores mirrored Nevada’s performance. Elementary and middle school students nationally posted solid improvements in math and modest gains in reading.

The test scores landed in the midst of a debate in Congress over renewal of President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act education law and provided ammunition for those who want to see it extended with minimal changes.

“If we hadn’t seen progress today, I think it might have been the death knell for renewing the law,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

“It’s definitely going to give the proponents some evidence that five years into the experiment, we’re seeing some uptick in some parts of the country.”

The 2002 law requires schools to test students annually in math and reading. Schools that miss benchmarks face increasingly tough consequences, such as having to replace their curriculum, teachers or principals.

The federal law requires that all states have their students participate in NAEP. But states use other standardized test results to determine whether schools are failing or passing.

Rheault said he cannot point to data that show the No Child Left Behind law was the reason for improved scores nationally and in Nevada, but he said he thinks it did have an effect.

Rheault was quick to point out, however, that he would like to see major changes in how schools are assessed under the federal law. He wants schools that show improvement to be counted as passing.

Some national education officials were concerned that the NAEP results indicate little progress in narrowing the achievement gap between higher-performing white students and their black and Hispanic classmates.

This year’s scores on the NAEP showed white students well ahead of black and Hispanic students in reading and math.

But black students in Nevada were making gains on their white counterparts. But the state’s Hispanic students struggled to make gains. In some instances, the performance gap between Hispanics and whites was as wide as it was nearly a decade ago.

Rheault attributed that to the increase in students whose primary language isn’t English. That population rose to 23 percent of test takers in 2007 from 17 percent in 2005.

The Associated Press and Washington Post contributed to this report.

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