The latest national reading and math scores from Washington show...

The latest national reading and math scores from Washington show "encouraging" gains over test results from two years ago, and they are well above student performance levels in the early 1990s, federal school officials announced. Credit: Heather Walsh

The latest national reading and math scores showed "encouraging" gains over test results from two years ago and were well above student performance levels in the early 1990s, federal school officials announced Thursday.

Eighth-grade reading scores from a federal assessment known as the "Nation's Report Card" were generally up among racial and ethnic groups, including blacks, Asians and Hispanics, as well as whites, federal authorities added.

In New York State, both reading and math scores improved modestly at the elementary and middle school levels. That marked a recovery for the state's fourth-grade math results, which tumbled in 2011.

Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally funded program run by a bipartisan governing board, were from tests in reading and math administered in January through March to representative samples of fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide. Results were collected for the nation and each of the 50 states. Such tests are given every two years.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was especially heartened that eighth-grade reading scores nationwide improved both this year and in 2011, after flattening out for nearly a decade.

"It is encouraging to see progress in tough economic times, when so many state and local communities have struggled with significant cuts to their education budgets," Duncan said.

Duncan's aides cautioned that 12th-grade scores, most recently released in 2009, have remained generally stagnant. Some independent analysts point to lack of improvement at the high school level as evidence that American teens continue to fall behind their counterparts in countries such as Canada, Germany, Finland and Japan.

Federal officials also noted that a wide gap in academic achievement between white students and those who are black or Hispanic did not narrow in the latest round of assessments, though scores for each group improved. Such disparities worry state and local school leaders, as well.

"It's painful," said Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of the Herricks school district and co-chairman of a committee on assessments for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

NAEP scores have taken on greater significance in recent years, as states such as Massachusetts and New York have adopted scoring standards similar to the rigorous national model.

A conservative economist and educational analyst, Eric Hanushek of Stanford University, underscored the national debate over assessment results in a phone interview Thursday.

"These are pretty disappointing numbers," Hanushek said of the latest NAEP figures. "I think what this portends is that we're going to fall even further behind."

Hanushek is co-author of a new book, "Endangering Prosperity," which cites results of international testing as evidence that U.S. high school students are being outpaced by their counterparts in other industrialized countries.

Highlights from the latest NAEP results:

The largest national gains during the past two years were in eighth-grade reading, where average scores climbed 3 points to 268. That was on a scale of zero to 500. New York State's eighth-grade reading scores rose 1 point, to 266.

National math scores grew by 1 point in both fourth and eighth grades. The new averages are 242 points and 285 points, respectively. New York State's scores increased 3 points in fourth grade to 240, and 1 point in eighth grade to 282.

The nation recorded long-range gains in average scores and in percentages of students achieving at "proficient" or "advanced" levels. In the latest round of testing, for example, 36 percent of eighth-graders scored at such levels in math, compared with only 15 percent in 1990.

In August, the state Department of Education released scores from its own tests based on new standards. In math, the percentage of students in grades three through eight scoring "proficient" or higher dropped to 31 percent, down from 64.8 percent the year before. On Long Island, the comparable percentage dipped to 37.5 percent, from 75.4 percent.

The state and some local districts are taking a closer look at results from international exams to see how their own performance compares. A half-dozen Nassau County districts have joined the regional BOCES in considering whether to have students tested by the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. That program measures school performance in dozens of European and Asian countries.

"The theory is that we have some of the best schools in the world, and this is a tool that would allow us to demonstrate that," Nassau BOCES chief Thomas Rogers said.

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