WASHINGTON -- Students are making strides in reading and math, though progress in math seems stalled among high school students, according to a federal report. The report issued Tuesday measured children's scores in 2008 against long-term trends. Reading scores improved since 2004, the last time results were issued. Every age group -- 9, 13 and 17 -- made gains over 2004. In math, scores improved for younger children since 2004, but scores for 17-year-olds remained flat.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was pleased but not satisfied with the results.
"It's a step in the right direction," he said in a brief interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.
"Obviously, we have a lot of hard work ahead. But it's really good to see the improvement," Duncan said. "I'm proud of how hard our kids are working. I'm proud of how hard our teachers are working."
Results were in line with long-term trends, said Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, the bipartisan panel that oversees the test.
Over time, schools have done rather well with elementary school children, better with middle school children and stalled with high school children, Winick said. The report said 17-year-olds did no better at reading and math in 2008 than they did in the early 1970s.
The biggest gains came from low-achieving students. That is probably not an accident -- the federal No Child Left Behind law and similar state laws have focused on improving the performance of minority and poor children, who lag behind their white classmates on standardized tests.
"The big pressure for the last six, eight years in this country has been on bringing the lower-performing students up," Winick said in an interview. "And what this long-term trend says is, generally, that's what's happening."
The overall gains in the report were modest, but one Education Department official pointed out that shifting demographics may obscure more significant progress among minority groups.
White children made up 80 percent of the 9-year-olds tested in the 1970s; today, they are 56 percent of those tested. Hispanic children were only 5 percent of the 9-year-olds assessed in the 1970s; today, they are 20 percent of those tested. The percentage of black students tested rose slightly, from 14 percent to 16 percent since the 1970s.
"You lose the fact that much more exciting things are happening in racial and ethnic groups," said Stuart Kerachsky, who, as acting commissioner of the department's National Center for Education Statistics, carries out the test.
Black students in all age groups have made greater gains over time than white students in reading and math. Hispanic children have made greater gains than white children in math, but for them, reading was a mixed bag: Among 9-year-old Hispanic students, reading scores were the highest in 2008. Yet there was no significant change for 13- and 17-year-old Hispanic students.
The report also found:
--Average reading scores were 12 points higher than in the early 1970s for 9-year-olds, 4 points higher for 13-year-olds and no different for 17-year-olds.
--Average math scores were 24 points higher than in the early 1970s for 9-year-olds, 15 points higher for 13-year-olds and no different for 17-year-olds.
Tom Loveless, an education expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the progress in reading from 2004 to 2008 is noteworthy.
"The gains are not huge, but they're gains," he said. "Something's going on in reading. That's a good thing."
No Child Left Behind prods schools to improve test scores each year, so every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014. It holds schools accountable for progress among each group of children, including those who have disabilities or are learning English.
The law was due for a rewrite in 2007, but the effort stalled in Congress. The Obama administration and Congress are gearing up now to make another attempt.
The House Education and Labor Committee chairman, Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, called it "deeply troubling" that high school students did not show improvement.
"We must redouble our efforts to ensure that all students, at every age, in every state, get a world-class education that fully prepares them for college and careers," Miller said in a statement.
The long-term trend report issued Tuesday was based on a nationally representative sample of more than 26,000 public and private school students. It tracks student progress in reading since 1971 and in math since 1973.
Because it is aligned with older tests, the long-term trend may give a more conservative picture of how children are doing. It is separate from the main NAEP assessments, which are given in nine subjects and have shown greater progress in math scores.
On the Net:
National Assessment of Educational Progress: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/