Washington The nation's math report card shows promise, with more than seven in 10 fourth-graders and almost as many eighth-graders now achieving at a basic level or better.
But enthusiasm over rising test scores is tempered by another figure: More than two-thirds of the students still can't do math at the level they should, based on federal standards.
In reading, meanwhile, the performance of students in grades four and eight largely held steady over the past year, continuing a trend in which math gains have been more pervasive.
The new findings, based on representative samples, come from the test considered the best benchmark of progress over time and across the states: the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Compared with their peers in 2000, when the math test was last given, fourth-graders and eighth-graders made sizable gains at every level in 2003, from the lowest performers to the top achievers. Black and Hispanic students reduced their performance gap with white students.
Education Secretary Rod Paige called the scores a turning point for the nation and proof that all children can learn "no matter the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage."
Nationwide, 77 percent of fourth-graders reached at least a basic level in math, meaning they had a partial mastery of skills needed for solid academic work. That's up from 65 percent three years ago and 50 percent in 1990. Among eighth-graders, 68 percent performed at basic level or better in math, up from 63 percent in 2000 and 52 percent in 1990.
The national tests measure more than whether scores are going up or down. They also show how students are doing compared with how they ought to be doing -- a level termed "proficient," which means understanding challenging subject matter and applying it to real-world situations.
In math and reading, fewer than one in three students achieved the proficient level. Some critics say the tests' goals are unrealistically high and out of sync with standards used in international tests. But the bipartisan board created by Congress to set national achievement levels says they represent a fair, challenging goal.
The debate is important because the national test, run by the Education Department, will now be used to gauge the rigor of education in the states. To make sure that happens, every state and the District of Columbia were ordered for the first time to take part in the test.
Now, every two years, national scores will come out in grades four and eight for reading and math. If students do well on annual state tests but not on the national test, states are expected to face greater pressure to explain why.
For example, some states say more than 80 percent of their fourth-graders are at least proficient on a state math test, yet on the national test, only about half their students reach that mark. On the other end, some states do better on the national test than their own.
"The danger is that we're about to start a debate over who has it right: the states or NAEP?" said Mike Cohen, president of Achieve, a nonprofit group that helps states with raising standards and measuring progress. "This is really a powerful signal to states that the question they need to ask and answer is, 'Do we have expectations that, if met, would leave a high school graduate academically ready for college or work?"'
|¢ Kansas fourth- and eighth-graders scored above the national average in reading and math this year. Scores were comparable to the last time students were tested in 2000, except fourth-grade math, where students averaged 10 points higher than in 2000.¢ White Kansas fourth- and eighth-graders, who made up close to 80 percent of those surveyed, averaged as many as 38 points higher in math tests than black and Hispanic students in 2003.¢ There was also a significant performance gap between Kansas students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and those who were not. The eligible fourth- and eighth-grade students scored about 20 points lower this year on math and reading tests than the other students.|