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Gannett News Service special report

WASHINGTON — Math scores of elementary and middle school students shot up to their highest levels in more than a decade this year on an influential national test.

But reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed little change from last year, and fewer than a third of students tested this year in reading and math were considered proficient in those subjects — defined as solid academic performance at each grade level.

Still, some experts heralded the math gains of fourth- and eighth-graders as a sign that a decade-old push to change math instruction has taken hold in the nation’s classrooms. The new approach emphasizes problem-solving skills over basic math skills.

The national test also focuses heavily on problem solving, and some educators warn that the results do not prove that students’ ability to multiply, divide and perform other basic math functions has improved.

Policy-makers say boosting math skills is key to U.S. competitiveness in an increasingly high-tech world.

The results released Thursday also showed a modest shrinking of the gap in math achievement between non-Hispanic white students and their black and Hispanic peers, a problem that has bedeviled public schools for decades.

“This is an important turning point in American educational history,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said. “We have proof that all children indeed can learn — no matter the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage or their poverty situation.”

The results of the NAEP, also known as the nation’s report card, took on new importance this year as public schools scramble to carry out a federal school-reform law. The No Child Left Behind law requires states to administer their own annual reading and math tests in grades three through eight.

It also mandates that all 50 states participate in the national test for the first time. That allows the public to compare the performance of large samples of students in each state.

States that perform poorly on the NAEP will not face formal consequences, but they risk public embarrassment if they claim gains on their own tests that aren’t backed up on the federal exams.

On the national test, 77 percent of fourth-graders performed at least at the basic level in math this year. That’s up from 65 percent in 2000, the last time students took the national math test. Nearly seven in 10 eighth-graders scored at the basic level or higher, up from 63 percent three years earlier.

Basic is defined as partial mastery of a subject. Federal policy-makers want students to achieve proficiency, a much higher standard. Thirty-two percent of fourth-graders and 29 percent of eighth-graders hit at least the proficient mark in math this year, which reflects significant improvement since 2000.

Despite gains among minority students, large gaps in math performance persist. Only 10 percent of black fourth-graders scored at the proficient level or higher. That’s a significant increase from 1 percent in 1990, but it trails white students, 43 percent of whom scored at least at the proficient level this year.

In reading, nearly a third of students in grades four and eight met the proficient standard, virtually unchanged from 2002, the last time students took the national reading test.

Experts say students seem to be doing better in math than reading partly because of a dramatic increase in the number of children from immigrant families who are just learning to speak English.

In addition, students tend to learn math almost exclusively in school, said John Stevens, who directs the Texas Business and Education Coalition and sits on the national board that oversees the federal test.

“But reading development depends … on what happens in school and what happens at home,” he said.

This year’s reading scores show schools should give students a greater grounding in vocabulary, phonics and comprehension, and spend a greater part of each school day on reading, said Timothy Shanahan, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a reading expert.

“The reading scores in the United States haven’t gone up significantly in 30 years,” Shanahan said. “Our kids are graduating from school with 1971 reading skills.”

Advocates of math reforms say the test results released Thursday show that a shift to a more problem-solving approach — and away from memorizing rules and mastering basic skills such as multiplication — is working.

“Don’t expect the math that your kids are studying to be like the math you know,” said Johnny Lott, a University of Montana math professor and president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

About a decade ago, his group pushed national standards that emphasized a more conceptual approach to math. That approach also requires students to tackle more geometry and statistics and to spend more time on math each day.

“In the not-too-distant past, all kids did in grade school was study arithmetic,” Lott said.

Today, students might use rubber bands on a peg board to sort through fraction problems, said Pam Robbins, a math teacher at Skyview School, a K-8 public school in Prescott, Ariz.

Tom Loveless, who oversees education research at the Brookings Institution, said the NAEP test also is geared toward a more problem-solving approach. And he worries that students’ basic math skills are suffering.

“I’m not sure that because you do well on the NAEP, that means that you know fundamental mathematics,” Loveless said.

On the Web:

Reading and math results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Parent-friendly guide to the math approach favored by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Web site favored by groups who prefer a back-to-basics approach to math instruction.