WASHINGTON — New test scores released Tuesday show the nation's fourth- and eighth-graders doing their best ever in math. In reading, eighth-graders had some modest improvements.
But the results are also a stark reminder of just how distant is the No Child Left Behind law's goal that every child in America be proficient in math and reading by 2014: Just a little more than one-third of the students are proficient or higher in reading. In math, 40 percent of the fourth-graders and 35 percent of the eighth-graders reached that level.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the results "are reason for concern as much as optimism."
"While student achievement is up since 2009 in both grades in mathematics and in 8th grade reading," he added in a statement, "it’s clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation’s children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century. After significant NAEP gains in the 1990s, particularly in mathematics, the 2011 results continue a pattern of modest progress."
The scores are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. The Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics administers the test every two years.
Hawaii was the only state in the nation where students boosted scores in both math and reading at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels over the last two years.
Math tests showed steady improvements in the past few years and major gains over the last two decades while reading scores remained mostly unchanged, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card.
"Over the past two decades major gains have occurred in mathematics achievement, but only modest improvements in reading," said David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board.
Despite better math scores, progress has slowed and achievement gaps between races remain "unacceptably wide," he said.
There were few noticeable changes in the achievement gap between white and black students from 2009. While the gap is smaller than in the early 1990s, the new test results reflect a 25-point difference between white and black fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and fourth-graders in math.
However, Hispanic students in eighth grade made some small strides to narrow the gap with white students in both math and reading. In reading, the gap was 22 points in 2011 compared to 26 in 1992 and 24 in 2009.
The reading test asked students to read passages and recall details or interpret them. In math, students were asked to answer questions about topics such as geometry, algebra and number properties and measurement.
The assessment tests measure progress among a national sample of students. While both public and private school students participate in the overall test, only public school scores are included in the state by state results.
In 2011, fourth- and eighth-graders posted the highest math scores ever on the national assessment test, with the grade four students gaining a single point over 2009 scores and 28 points over 1990, when testing began.
Among eighth-graders, average math scores climbed by a single point over 2009 and by 21 points over 1990.
State-by-state profiles of test scores
Lesser gains in reading
Gains on reading assessments over the years have been less impressive.
The average reading score among fourth-graders was unchanged since 2009 while the average score for eighth-graders climbed by one point. Since 1992, both age groups have scored increases of about five points.
In addition to Hawaii, Maryland was highlighted for improving reading scores for both grades.
Youngsters who read for fun more frequently scored higher, the report said, while eighth-grade students taking Algebra I were also able to boost their scores.
Asian students posted higher scores in both reading and math than other racial and ethnic groups, the report said.
President Barack Obama has said that young Americans are falling behind their overseas peers in reading, math and science.
Countries that out-educate the United States will eventually out-compete the U.S. work force, he said in a September radio address.
The results come as states are clamoring for waivers to No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that was heralded as a way to primarily help low-income and minority children.
Obama in September said that since Congress had failed to rewrite the law, he was allowing states that meet certain requirements to get around it. Forty states have said they intend to seek waivers, according to the Education Department. Meanwhile, there has been some progress in both the House and Senate in rewriting the law, although it's unclear whether Congress will act this year.
More state control, better results?
Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said the tests indicate students showed more growth in reading during the 1990s when states had more control over school accountability efforts, and that is likely to stoke the debate over whether states should again have more control.
Tom Loveless, an education expert and senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, said any gains from 2009 to 2011 were minuscule and wouldn't even be noticed "in the real world." He said what counts is long-term growth. "Students have had a lot harder time making the gains in reading than they have in math," Loveless said.
There was no clear reason why.
Driscoll noted that when the board set achievement levels around 1990, the percentage of students at or above proficient was far higher in reading than math — the opposite of today.
Some speculate it's simply because reading isn't as much of a pastime with students as it was years ago.
Fuller said another theory is that reading is much more dependent on the richness of English being used at home, while math has more of a level playing field that's almost like a foreign language to all students when they learn it.
Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the schools in the city of Washington who now leads the education advocacy group StudentsFirst, said teachers have told her that the concepts that need to be taught in math are easier to define.
'I've heard teachers say it's easier to do that in math, and easier to sort of define here are the specific skills that the kids need help on ... and go back and reteach those things," Rhee said.
The math assessment was given this year to 209,000 fourth-graders and 175,200 eighth-graders. The reading test was given to 213,100 fourth-graders and 168,200 eighth-graders.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.