Top officials of the state Department of Education were blasted Friday by a key Senate committee for providing what critics called misleading figures on student performance.

“You can’t give us wrong numbers,” said state Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe. “That is just unacceptable.”

Walsworth added: “If you don’t give us right numbers, how are we going to talk about this?”

Walsworth is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is reviewing planned spending by the state Department of Education as part of its study of the nearly $25 billion operating budget.

The spending is spelled out in House Bill 1, which has won House approval.

The committee will make changes to the House-passed plan, then send the legislation to the full Senate for debate.

The two chambers have to agree on a final version, and pass it through the House and Senate, by the Legislature’s adjournment on June 23.

The legislation funds state services for the financial year that begins on July 1.

The chief focus of Friday’s dispute was how many third-graders are performing below grade level in reading.

Walsworth said the department’s own figures put that figure at 52 percent, which he called unacceptable.

“If they can’t read, they can’t learn,” he told top state education department officials.

“I can’t think of anything more meaningful than whether third-graders are reading on grade level,” Walsworth said.

But controversy erupted when department leaders disputed the figures and questioned whether they are good indicators of student performance.

“This is your number,” an incensed Walsworth told department leaders at one point. “This is what you gave us.”

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans and a member of the committee, also criticized the agency.

“If there is this kind of disconnect in the department, what does that say about the department?” Murray asked.

George Noell, executive director of strategic research and analysis for the department, said other test results show that, in 2011, 69 percent of third-graders performed at grade level in reading, 67 percent in 2010 and 66 percent in 2009.

Noell said while those figures are “completely unacceptable,” they are more representative than those cited by Walsworth.

Noell’s figures came from an annual test of skills called iLEAP, which department officials say are familiar to the public.

Those cited by Walsworth are less comprehensive and rely on a higher standard, they said.

Walsworth cited figures for a period that ended in mid-2009.

The same list showed that 46 percent of second-graders were reading below grade level.

Ollie Tyler, acting state superintendent of education, asked the committee for time to provide an explanation for the low reading rates cited by Walsworth.

“I can only apologize that I don’t have the answers today, but I plan to get the answers,” Tyler told the committee.

Other officials said the reading figures in dispute — they are called performance indicators — are notoriously inaccurate in a wide range of state agencies.

“We don’t all take it seriously,” said Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville and a member of the committee.

“Don’t get too upset, Sen. Walsworth,” he added.

However, Walsworth said the reading trends are in House Bill 1.

“This is a legal document,” he said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, said performance indicators have sparked questions for the past three years.

“They are supposed to have a meaning to us,” Michot said.