About half of Nebraska’s third- through eighth-graders tested proficient in English language arts —  a dip in performance from previous reading tests, but state officials said they anticipated the drop because the new tests set the bar higher.

High school juniors, who for the first time took the ACT college preparatory exam instead of statewide tests, fared similarly: 52 percent are proficient in English language arts, 51 percent in math and 55 percent in science.

For younger students, the new English language arts assessments test both reading and writing skills and follow more-rigorous standards than previous tests.

On the new assessments, proficiency levels ranged from 47 percent proficient for sixth- and seventh-graders to 56 percent for fourth-graders.

State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said it’s impossible to compare last year’s reading test scores with this year’s English language arts scores because they’re new tests that assess mastery of more-rigorous standards designed to ensure students are better prepared for college or a career when they graduate.

“This is a new baseline in Nebraska,” Blomstedt said Friday. “Because we set an expectation that is higher, we have students not at that bar.”

He said he expects scores to rise as schools align their classes to the new standards, and students become better prepared for the assessments, including the ACT. Similar trends have happened when standards have changed in other states as well as Nebraska, he said.

“We’re setting a higher trajectory,” he said.

State education officials have been preparing schools and the public to expect lower scores because of the new tests.

“It’s a tough transition and even though we’ve talked about it a long time, it doesn’t become real 'til you see the results,” he said.

Educate Nebraska, a school choice advocacy group, issued a statement saying the preliminary results show Nebraska must work harder to “adopt meaningful and proven policies” that put students first.

Schools will soon be sending results to parents with information about how their student fared on English language arts, math and science tests, as well as how those results compare with preliminary statewide results.

Students in third through eighth grades took the tests last spring, and juniors took the ACT.

Test scores for individual districts and schools aren’t yet available.

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Math and science tests, which have yet to be updated, are comparable to past years’ tests.

In math, proficiency levels ranged from 65 percent for eighth-graders to 76 percent for fourth- and fifth-graders. In science, 72 percent of fifth-graders tested proficient and 68 percent of eighth-graders were proficient. Those are the only two grades tested in science.

Last year, math proficiency rates ranged from 68 percent to 78 percent. In science, 74 percent of fifth-graders were proficient last year, as were 68 percent of eighth-graders.

More-rigorous math standards will go into effect next year, and new science standards will go into effect in the years following.

While Nebraska students compared well to other states that take the ACT, less than a third of those students met all four benchmarks that indicate they’ll be successful in college courses.

State officials used those benchmarks to help determine proficiency at the state level, and added another cutoff that considered students to be "on track" to succeed in college — both those categories are considered proficient.

Students whose scores put them in a category called “developing” — between 45 percent and 49 percent of students — likely would need remedial courses before taking college courses for credit.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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