Nevada's high school math scores, which caused so much consternation during the last Legislature, improved in tests given this past October.
But the 0.8 percent improvement was more than offset by the fact that nearly 5 percent fewer students passed the reading exam.
Passing scores are necessary in both subject areas to get a high school diploma.
Superintendent of Education Mary Peterson said Wednesday she was "very concerned" about the reading scores, but her staff has not been able to analyze what happened yet.
"I'm encouraged with the juniors and their math, but I want to find out why the reading scores are down," she said. "It was across the board - all ethnicities."
She said she was also pleased that the percentage of black students who passed improved from just over 21 percent to almost 24 percent. Peterson said a major problem the state's schools must resolve is the 1-in-4 ratio of black and Hispanic students who passed the math tests, which is far lower than other ethnic groups.
Even though math scores improved, she pointed out that only 49.9 percent of juniors taking the test passed it. She said, however, they have as many as six more tries to get through the exam.
And she said a significant number of students pass the exam on their second or third try. She pointed out that 90 percent of this year's senior class has now passed reading, and some 75 percent have made their scores in math.
The math test became the center of attention during the 1999 Legislature when parents complained their children were unfairly hit by a test requiring algebra skills the youths were never taught.
At legislative direction, school officials offered remedial training and more chances to pass the test. Even so, a total of 709 students were denied their high school diploma last June because they couldn't pass one or more parts of the test. The biggest problem by far was the math test.
Peterson and Deputy Superintendent Keith Rheault said, however, the test results show that algebra wasn't the problem.
"We hear all the complaints that it's the algebra we didn't teach them," said Rheault. "But that's the highest scores."
Peterson said the lowest scores were on the test questions requiring data analysis and problem solving skills, in which students must figure out what a problem means rather than work a standard formula.
"Those are the areas we seem to have the most problems, and that's been pretty consistent," she said.
She said the toughest thing about the testing system is having to deny a diploma to those students who attend class, have the necessary 22 1/2 credits and have tried repeatedly to pass the math test but just don't have the math ability.
Still, Peterson said, many high school students have said the test is "reasonable and appropriate."
"Some of them just don't take it seriously the first time or so," she said. "Serious kicks in at different times for different kids."
She defended the exams.
"As sad as it is, the diploma has to mean something," she said pointing out that those who can't pass the test can still get a certificate of attendance showing they completed the classwork in high school even if they didn't qualify for a diploma.
And they can try again even after their senior year by going through an adult education program, she said.