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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Like their peers across the United States, this year’s graduating seniors in DODEA schools scored lower than the previous year in every category on the SAT exam.

But unlike the rest of the nation, where reading scores were the lowest on record, Department of Defense Education Activity students performed better on average than their peers in reading and equaled them in the writing portion of the test.

The problem area for the military’s schools continues to be math.

DODEA’s class of 2011 mean score for math was 495, widening the gap to 19 points below the national average, according to data from DODEA.

Last year, DODEA math scores were 17 points below the national mark.

“It’s really in stark contrast to what’s going on in the rest of the nation,” said Jim Hull, senior policy analyst for the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education, a not-for-profit organization representing state associations of school boards.

“The good news is the critical reading and writing part. But the focus on why the math scores are declining is a really important question DODEA needs to answer.”

The agency needs to evaluate what courses are being offered, which students are taking what courses, the effectiveness of classroom instruction, and whether all students have access to high-quality teachers, Hull said.

DODEA officials say they’re addressing any deficiencies in the schools’ math program with a sense of urgency, but caution results will take time.

Some improvements have already been made. The agency last year added more secondary school math specialists to assist teachers with instruction and training on how to use technology in the classroom, according to DODEA officials.

Teachers this year are using a new math curriculum, said Mike Kestner, DODEA mathematics curriculum branch chief, replacing materials that were in place for six years, with a new emphasis on concepts and critical reasoning.

“We’re trying to cultivate math thinkers,” said Carole Newman, DODEA statistician for assessment and accountability. “To understand not only what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it; what concepts are helping you get the answers.”

Still up for debate is whether to increase graduation requirements in math. Currently, DODEA students are required to take three math courses — Algebra I, geometry and a third offering. But many students are done with the requirement by their junior or senior year, and aren’t challenging themselves by taking higher-level math such as calculus, DODEA officials said.

“A lot of states have gone to requiring Algebra II before graduation,” Kestner said. Research indicates that “the higher level math you take, the better off your achievement scores in math are going to be,” he said.

DODEA is also looking at incorporating “common core” standards that many states have adopted, Kestner said. In some areas, he said, those standards are more rigorous than DODEA’s; in kindergarten, the expectation is for kids to count up to 100, compared to the DODEA standard of counting to 20, for example.

Though some colleges no longer require the SAT — also known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test — the exam is still a key component for admission to many stateside colleges and universities.

For the 2011 SAT results, the national average combined score of 1500 points was down 9 points, from 1509 in 2010. DODEA’s average was 1487 this year, down 16 points from the previous year. A perfect score on the three-section test is 2400.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, says the record number of students who took the exam during the previous school year may factor into the national performance drop.

Likewise, DODEA officials point to its 74 percent participation rate — compared to the national rate of 50 percent — as one possible reason for the decline in scores.

Hull said that may be true for DODEA, where the number of seniors taking the SAT has jumped by nearly 10 percent over the last five years. By comparison, the percentage of seniors taking the test nationwide has hovered between 45 percent and 50 percent.

“That reasoning has much more value (for DODEA) than it does nationwide,” Hull said.

According to a DODEA press release, it was the highest participation in five years and among the highest in the nation.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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