When it comes to understanding "pressed" and "permeated," Utah eighth-graders gained ground in vocabulary in 2009 and 2011, according to a federal report released Thursday.
Students from the Beehive State scored two points higher in the two years, while in 2011 they scored higher than those in 20 states in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP a test that shows state and national trends.
Called the "Nation's Report Card, Reading," the report also shows Utah Latino students had an average reading score that was 24 points lower than white students in 2011. The findings come amid disappointing news in graduation rates: Utah had the fourth-lowest graduation rate for Latinos in the country at 57 percent.
The state's overall graduation rate was 76 percent in 2010-11.
"It's not a new warning sign," said John Jesse, director of assessment and accountability at the State Office of Education. "I don't think we're losing progress [with Latino students]."
Overall, Utah students' scores continued to climb higher in reading as they progressed from fourth grade to the eighth grade.
"The longer they are in the system the better they do," Jesse said.
As Utah educators grapple with how to lessen the achievement gap, Claudia Nakano, director of Utah Multicultural Affairs, will chair a state panel looking into ways to boost minority education.
She pointed out that 25 percent of Ogden preschoolers are from minority groups, and that by 2040, minorities will become the majority in the U.S.
Latinos are Utah's largest minority group, making up about 15.5 percent of all Utah public school students.
"There's a very diverse student population that is not graduating," Nakano said. "We as a committee are addressing those education disparities and achievement."
She cited the success of Latinos in Action, a program in schools throughout the state that sends high school and junior high students into elementary schools to work with students and perform community service.
In the latest NAEP reading test, 84 percent of white Utah students scored at the "basic" reading level; while 58 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of American Indian/Pacific Islanders did so.
In 2011, female Utahns had an average reading score that was higher than male students at the "basic" level, with 83 percent of females scoring at that level while 75 percent of males earned a basic score.
In the latest scores, students' understanding of vocabulary was highlighted. Testing officials said the vocabulary tests were designed to gauge reading comprehension of words, not simply rote definitions.
Margaret McKeown, a scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said students' vocabulary scores in kindergarten predict their reading scores 12 years later.
Even though there are scientific techniques for increasing a student's vocabulary, McKeown said few schools use them.
"We're not seeing [vocabulary programs] in the classroom; very little [is] done at any age," said McKeown, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which in part oversees NAEP exams.
The Nation's Report Card is the only nationally representative, continuing evaluation of education in the United States, according to NAEP officials. It has been a national yardstick of student achievement since 1969.
The NAEP scores are released only by state and are not broken down by district. Thursday's results marked the first time vocabulary exams were released apart from the reading results.
Deputy State Superintendent Martell Menlove said Thursday that he's pleased with Utah students' progress on the exam.
"It is gratifying to see Utah's students performing well. It is even more gratifying to see them improving during a time when national scores are flat," Menlove said in a statement.
The report can be read online at http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2011/.
Utah is one of 18 states where fourth- and eighth-graders scored higher than the national average on vocabulary results from 2009 and 2011.
Testing data released Thursday is the first time vocabulary results have been reported separately from reading tests.
Utah fourth-graders scored 218 in 2009 and 220 in 2011 on NAEP tests the national average was 217 in both years.
Utah eighth-graders scored an average of 269 in 2009 and 272 in 2011 on NAEP tests the national average was 263 in both years.
NAEP exams are administered to a cross-section of Utah students, so there aren't specific results for a school or district, just state-level data.
Sources • Utah Department of Education, U.S. Department of Education