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Math, science rate high in Nebo

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SPANISH FORK — W. James Topham theorizes that standardized tests don't really show what a child from Goshen has learned at her elementary school.

Such exams serve to show who got what in the "gene pool sweepstakes," says Topham, a UCLA professor.

Questions on such tests such as the Stanford Achievement Tests are written to measure "the academic potentials that children were fortunate or unfortunate to have inherited from their parents: inborn word-smarts, number-smarts, and spatial-smarts," wrote Topham in "The Truth About Testing."

To be sure, Nebo School District, which oversees schools that serve students in rural Goshen, won't likely be ground zero for a national "nature vs. nurture" debate.

Deseret News graphicDNews graphicNebo School District SAT scoresRequires Adobe Acrobat.

But patterns found in the results of the annual SAT may give credence to his theory, said Mark Bake, Nebo's testing chief.

In Utah, third-, fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders are required to take the aptitude exam, which tests students' knowledge in mathematics, reading, language, science and social sciences.

All Stanford scores are reported in percentiles. A composite score at the 67th percentile earned by Nebo students in the 11th grade means the local students scored higher than 67 percent of the national test takers.

The national median is 50. Scores above the 60th percentile are noteworthy. Likewise, scores below the 40th percentile should give educators pause.

This year's high school juniors were eighth-graders in 1998.

Three years ago, those Nebo students scored in the 68th percentile in math and 62nd in science. Reading and language scores were a bit lower — in the 60th and 53rd percentiles.

As 11th-graders, SAT scores of the same group of students remained higher in science and math portions than in the reading and language subtests. They hit the 68th percentile again in math and 67th percentile in science, yet reading and language scores were lower, in the 55th and 47th percentile, respectively.

"It illustrates how they came packaged" and may not necessarily reflect the quality of classroom instruction, he said.

"Different groups come into it with different innate abilities," Bake said. "A lot of educators buy into it, especially those who have taught for a long time."

Regardless of natural talents — whether academic, athletic or artistic — students in schools from Springville to Santaquin didn't falter much on the norm-referenced test proctored each fall.

Composite scores were at least as high or higher at each grade level than the total battery for Nebo's counterparts in schools, except for eighth-grade language score, which dipped slightly to the 47th percentile. The state's median score was 50.

Language is the rough spot on the SAT for Nebo.

Superintendent Carl Nielson points out that scores in language were down statewide — and Nebo students score as well or better than state and national test takers.

Also, SAT questions focus on subjects that are woven throughout the state's core curriculum — but not taught in isolation. One-sixth of SAT questions in the third-grade language subtest asked children to identify correct spellings of words. Spelling, however, is only one part of the 34 sections of Utah's reading and editing lessons in the second grade, the year before students take the test.

"I think there are some cultural differences with the words we use commonly," said Bonnie Palmer, school board member. Utah County children have a different vocabulary than students in the part of the country where the test was created, she said.

E-mail: jeffh@desnews.com