Some welcome news tempered by cautionary notes is the best way to sum up the results of this year's National Assessment of Educational Progress test of the country's fourth- and eighth-graders.
For the first time, all 50 states and the District of Columbia took part in the NAEP, a requirement of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Most notable were strides in math, thought by some educators to reflect more emphasis on teaching math analysis and reasoning. A shift to emphasizing algebra in middle school also may be a factor.
The results showed a jump from 65 to 77 percent between 2000 and 2003 in the number of fourth-graders showing they could perform at at least a basic skill level in mathematics. For eighth-graders, the gain was smaller - from 63 to 68 percent. But even more impressive: an 18-point jump for African-American fourth-graders in basic math ability - from 36 to 54 percent since 2000. For Hispanics - 42 to 62 percent.
Those increases are particularly impressive, given that the NAEP is considered to be a more difficult test than many state achievement tests. And even more encouraging - the largest gains were made by the lowest 10 percent of students.
Does all this good news mean students know math as well as they should? Probably not. Some 70 percent of the students still aren't "proficient" (a step above "basic") in math.
Reading scores remained flat overall and that's cause for concern, too. In fact, they have held steady since 1992. Fourth-grade students considered to read at or above basic reading level went from 62 percent in 1992 to just 63 percent in 2003, for example.
Further, there's been no significant narrowing of the reading gap between races. Hopefully, reading scores will improve as more early reading programs are implemented.