JEFFERSON CITY — Nearly three-fourths of Missouri high school students scored proficient or better on a new standardized exam for English, but barely half met that mark on algebra and biology.
Test results released Wednesday by the state education department also showed improvement among elementary and middle school students. Yet roughly two-thirds of Missouri's public schools failed to meet the ever-toughening progress standards established under federal law.
State education officials said they generally were pleased by the mixed results.
"The direction is favorable," said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
This past school year was the first in which Missouri administered a standardized end-or-course exam that schools were encouraged to incorporate into students' grades for English II, Algebra I and Biology. In previous years, all students took a standardized math test in 10th grade and a communication arts test in 11th grade.
About 63,000 students took new end-of-course exams in each subject, which were scored on a proficiency scale rather than a pass-fail basis. On the English test, 72.6 percent of students scored proficient or better, compared with 55.1 percent on biology and the 52.7 percent on algebra.
The gap in scores does not necessarily mean that Missouri students understand English better than math or science, Morris said. Rather, it may indicate schools are using a wider variety of curriculums in the two lower-scoring subjects, he said.
"One of the consequences of this test is going to be to encourage schools to look at their curriculum, to look at the state standards for course content, and see how they align," Morris said.
Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association, said last year's end-of-course exams will serve as a benchmark for judging scores on future exams. But he said the association had no theory about the reason for the discrepancy in English, math and science scores. The state for several years has been trying to increase the emphasis on math and science.
Students in elementary school take standardized achievement tests in communications arts and mathematics from the third through eighth grades. They also take science assessment tests in grades five and eight. The percentage of students scoring proficient or better this past school year improved in all grades for all subjects except for sixth-grade math, where it decreased 0.4 percentage points.
Scores on the Missouri Assessment Program tests are used in determining whether school districts meet state accreditation standards. The results also are used to measure students' progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which imposes penalties if increasing numbers of students don't perform well over time.
Of Missouri's 2,210 public schools, 64 percent failed to make "adequate yearly progress," and 495 now are under sanctions for missing the progress standards multiple years in a row. That's up from 347 schools under sanctions last year.
Schools that don't meet progress standards for two years must develop improvement plans, provide access to tutoring and, in some cases, allow students to transfer to other public schools in the same district. Schools that miss the mark for longer periods may have to make changes in curriculum, staff or administration.
The federal law requires all children be proficient in reading and math by 2014. But many school officials contend that is impossible to achieve.
Representatives from the state school boards' group said the No Child Left Behind Act fails to provide an accurate picture of schools that need improvement versus those that perform well.
"The vast majority of Missouri's public schools continue to do an excellent job of educating our students," said Carter Ward, executive director of the Missouri School Boards' Association. But, "because of the way adequate yearly progress is calculated, we are on an inevitable march toward including nearly every school and school district in the state on the 'needs improvement' list."