LESS than 20 percent of American 4th, 8th, and 12th-graders have reached math proficiency for their level, says the first annual "report card" of the National Education Goals Panel, issued Monday.The math results were just one measure - and the only new data - in the first broad attempt to hold the nation accountable for raising student performance. Annual reports over the next decade will measure progress as called for in the six National Education Goals set by the president and the nation's governors in a 1989 educational summit. The picture may be grim, but it has already improved as a result of educational reforms of the 1980s, suggests another study from the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) research project. The 20-year trend report of NAEP's biennial, random testing of 4th, 8th, and 12th-graders, released with the report card yesterday, shows that overall in math, science, reading, and writing, American students lost ground between the early 1970s and 1980s, but regained that ground by 1990. It also showed that while white students still outperform blacks and Hispanics, the gap between minorities and whites has narrowed. The math proficiency results in the report card were from another, separate NAEP report released yesterday. In what education authorities consider a profoundly important change in reading test data, NAEP set the first national standards of what student achievement ought to be. Until now, NAEP reported only averages and distributions, but never said what was good or bad. Achievement levels were set at "basic" (partial mastery of knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at each grade); "proficient" (solid academic performance in challenging subject matter); and "advanced" (superior performance beyond proficient grade-level mastery). Those standards applied to 1990 math test results showed that more than one-third of students did not reach the lowest level and less than 20 percent reached the proficient level or beyond. Just 0.6 percent of 4th graders and 2.6 percent of 12th graders reached advanced ranges. This first report card and the setting of NAEP's achievement standards are unprecedented for creating consistent national education standards and mark progress in measuring effects of the education reform movement, say education authorities. "We have hopefully begun a better process of accountability for policymakers," observes Susan Fuhrman, director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University. The states have been the main decisionmakers in education - about what is learned and who teaches it - and contribute the biggest share of school dollars. The goals panel's state-by-state comparison of progress toward the national goals "is going to be great pressure on the states to look good," says Dr. Fuhrman. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig leveled criticism at what he considers the emphasis and oversimplification of negative data in yesterday's report card and NAEP reports. "It's thought that if we take pressure off we won't galvanize the public. But the flip side is that if no one gives credit [to what has happened with reform] the public will give up or it will lead to being more reckless [in policymaking]." Dr. Honig agrees that while student achievement should be better, "things did go up in the 1980s; substantially more kids are testing at the highest levels than ever before." He interprets this to mean that reforms are working and should be credited, not endangered. Honig suggests that the Bush administration gain political support for its choice proposals - permitting state education dollars to follow students to the schools of parents' choice - if it can show the current system doesn't work.