updated 2/22/2007 12:26:11 PM ET 2007-02-22T17:26:11

Large percentages of high school seniors are posting weak scores on national math and reading tests even though more of them are taking challenging courses and getting higher grades in school, say two new government reports released Thursday.

“The reality is that the results don’t square,” said Darvin Winick, chair of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the national tests.

Nearly 40 percent of high school seniors scored below the basic level on the math test. More than a quarter of seniors failed to reach the basic level on the reading test. Most educators think students ought to be able to work at the basic level.

The reading scores show no change since 2002, the last time the tests were given. “We should be getting better. There’s nothing good about a flat score,” Winick said.

The government said it could not compare the math results to old scores because the latest test was significantly different.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress — often called the nation’s report card — is viewed as the best way to compare students across the country because it’s the only uniform national yardstick for how well students are learning.

The tests were given in 2005. The government released the scores Thursday along with a report examining the high school transcripts of 2005 graduates.

Average grades on the upswing
The transcript study shows high school students are earning more credits, taking more challenging courses and getting higher grade-point averages than in the past.

In 2005, high school graduates had an overall grade-point average just shy of 3.0 — or about a B. That has gone up from a grade-point average of about 2.7 in 1990.

It is unclear whether student performance has improved or whether grade inflation or something else might be responsible, the report said.

More students are completing high school with a standard curriculum, meaning they took at least four credits of English and three credits each of social studies, math and science. More students also are taking the next level of courses, which generally includes college preparatory classes.

No increase in advanced studies
But the study showed no increase in the number of high-schoolers who completed the most advanced curriculum, which could include college-level or honors classes.

On the math test, about 60 percent of high school seniors performed at or above the basic level. At that level, a student should be able to convert a decimal to a fraction, for example.

Just one-fourth of 12th-graders were proficient or better in math, meaning they demonstrated solid academic performance. To qualify as “proficient,” students might have to determine what type of graph should be used to display particular types of data.

On the reading test, about three-fourths of seniors performed at or above the basic level, while 40 percent hit the proficient mark.

Seniors working at a basic reading level can identify elements of an author’s style. At the proficient level, they can make inferences from reading material, draw conclusions from it and make connections to their own experiences.

Racial, ethnic disparities persist
As in the past, the math and reading scores showed large achievement gaps between white students and minorities.

Forty-three percent of white students scored at or above proficient levels on the reading test, compared with 20 percent of Hispanic students and 16 percent of black students.

On the math test, 29 percent of white students reached the proficient level, compared with 8 percent of Hispanics and 6 percent of blacks.

The gap in reading scores between whites and minorities was relatively unchanged since 2002.

The federal No Child Left Behind law has put added emphasis on math and reading, largely in the elementary- and middle-school grades. It also requires states to separate out their test scores by race so officials can track and try to narrow achievement gaps between groups of students.

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