Test scores jump, retention a factor

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Elementary reading and math scores on standardized tests are at their highest point since the 1980s, according to preliminary results the Reform Board released May 18. On the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), 34.7 percent of 3rd- to 8th-graders scored at or above the national average in reading. That score is 4.4 percentage points over last year’s total, the highest one-year gain of the decade. Elementary math scores rose to 39.6 percent at or above average.

Ninth-grade math and reading scores on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) also rose, while 11th-grade scores dropped slightly in both subjects. Ninth-grade scores were 28 percent at level in reading and 30.9 percent in math. Eleventh-grade scores were 29.4 percent at level in reading, and 31.4 percent in math.

The scores appear to have been inflated by the Reform Board’s promotion policy. Last year the board retained students in 3rd, 6th, 8th and 9th grades who failed to meet minimum cutoff scores on the ITBS or TAP. As shown in the chart below, reading gains were highest in those grades where low-achieving students got an extra year of instruction (3rd, 6th, 8th, 9th) and in grades into which the lowest scorers did not pass (4th, 7th, 9th). In the two grades unaffected this year by the new promotion policy, one (5th) had the smallest gain and the other (11th) had the only loss.

The lowest-achieving kids scored better this year. The percentage of students scoring in the bottom quartile (lowest 25 percent) dropped at every grade level to the lowest point this decade. Not surprisingly, drops were highest in grades that were spared the lowest-achieving students (4th, 7th, 9th).

The percentage of students taking the ITBS and TAP has gradually declined, decreasing from 86.6 percent in 1990 to 79.2 percent last year. The preliminary 1998 results encompass 76 percent of students enrolled in the grades tested, a percentage expected to rise once make-up tests are counted. The decline is likely due to the rising number of bilingual and special education students, whose scores usually do not count towards school and district averages.