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Utah schoolchildren have done fairly well in statewide testing this year, except for a troubling drop in reading scores in fifth grade.

David E. Nelson, director of assessment and evaluation, said the Utah scores are, in general, good. "It's the classic good news/bad news scenario. There are 21 possible scores, and in 19 of the 21, we are above the national norm.'But some persistent problems concern Nelson and others at the State Office of Education. Utah students continued to score below the national norm in English/language arts, and there was another slippage in reading scores at the fifth-grade level.

In 1991, Utah fifth-graders were reading at the 55th percentile. Since then, the average score has gone down to the 51st percentile.

The ability to read underscores just about everything a student does, Nelson said, so poor reading scores may have an impact on all other measures.

For instance, a drop in social science scores at the fifth-grade level - from the 55th percentile to the 51st - very likely is a reflection of reading problems, Nelson said, since social sciences depend heavily on reading.

The English/language arts score also continues to be disappointing, Nelson said. An analysis of last year's statewide test scores indicated that boys do very poorly in these subjects in Utah, dropping the average across both sexes.

This year's scores have not been dissected for gender, minority and other factors.

"Until there are some fundamental changes in philosophies, we won't see significant shifts," said Nelson. He referred to a current tendency in many schools to slide over the "mechanics" of the language in favor of actual writing.

But to supplant basic grammar, punctuation, spelling and correct English usage with so-called "editing skills" is a "horrible misnomer," Nelson said. "Those old basics are the tools of language. But I see better things on the horizon."

Utah tends to do extremely well on comparisons when it comes to college entrance tests, advanced placement and other measures that relate to the most able of its students, Nelson said.

He believes Utah should be performing near the 60th percentile on all of the nationally normed tests. Failure to achieve that level in some test areas may be an indication that Utah schools have a growing number of children who are academically at risk.

Educators are divided as to just what these test scores show and whether the picture is as bleak as it first appears.

Lesley Walker, a nine-year veteran of the classroom at Bell View Elementary School in Jordan School District, thinks fifth-graders clearly are not reading so well as they did years ago.

"Their skills have definitely dropped," she said. "For example, when the fifth-graders recently took an in-school `Math Maniacs' test that's comprised of story problems, the youngsters zipped through the math but had trouble with the reading.

"They missed critical words," Walker said. "When I read out loud to them, emphasizing critical words, they went `oh' and could understand it. I'm not sure why. I know their vocabulary is down. And they can study definitions and match them with words, but if they try to put them into sentences and into context, they don't understand - so they've only done rote memorization."

Like many teachers, Walker is puzzled and troubled by this.

"I don't know if it's TV or video games, but their attention span is shorter. When they choose a book, they always choose the shortest book," she said.

Another veteran fifth-grade teacher, Joan Souza, isn't so sure things are as bad as they look. In fact, she thinks students are doing better today with reading than in years past.

Souza, who has been in the classroom for 10 years, teaches at Bonneville Elementary School in Salt Lake School District.

"In general, I think a lot of times people look at SAT scores and think that is an accurate way of seeing what a child knows about reading. Tests don't really show what's going on with kids and their reading skills," Souza said.

"A lot of these tests ask minute details, things that are not important. Sometimes they don't show what the kids are thinking or understanding from reading."



Stanford Achievement test

Percentiles for Utah students.

The national median is 50.

Grade 5 Grade 8 Grade 11

Subtest 1991 1994 1991 1994 1991 1994

Mathematics 62nd 60th 54th 51st 59th 59th

Reading 55th 51st 55th 55th 58th 58th

Language/English 48th 48th 45th 45th 51st 51st

Science 56th 56th 53rd 53rd 60th 60th

Social Science 55th 51st 50th 50th 56th 56th

Thinking skills 56th 56th 56th 56th 57th 57th

Total basic battery 55th 53rd 51st 50th 55th 55th

Source: Utah State Office of Education