Fourth grade NAEP reading scores remained unchanged.

Fourth-grade NAEP reading scores remained unchanged.

The reading scores for fourth- and eighth-grade students on a national test held mostly steady last year, continuing a stubborn trend of minimal improvement across most racial, economic, and geographic groups.

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a series of federally funded achievement tests commonly referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card,” rose in two states and the District of Columbia in grade four and in nine states for grade eight in 2009. Overall, the fourth-grade average remained unchanged, while eighth-graders rose one point.

Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Utah showed higher eighth-grade scores. In fourth grade, average scores rose in Kentucky, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia, while the average scores fell in Alaska, Iowa, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

The average score for both grades was only four points higher than it was in 1992.

“Today’s results once again show that the achievement of American students isn’t growing fast enough,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

Fourth-grade math scores flattened last year, and eighth-grade scores improved two points—scores that were considered stagnant compared to years of dramatic improvements; there has been a 27-point increase in math scores overall for fourth-grade students since 1990. By contrast, those leaps have never been seen in reading.

“There are tremendous implications for the quality of teaching and the development of school leadership to make sure we have high-performing schools across the country,” said Steven Paine, superintendent of West Virginia schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests.

The test results come eight years after the enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law championed by President George W. Bush, which set a goal for every student to read and do math at grade-level proficiency by 2014. In 2009, just 33 percent of fourth-grade students and 32 percent of eighth-grade students scored at the proficient level in reading.

President Barack Obama is urging states to turn around low-performing schools and is offering billions in competitive grants aimed at spurring reform in education. The administration also has proposed overhauling NCLB, moving away from punishing schools that don’t meet benchmarks and instead focusing on rewarding schools for progress.

“There’s no magic bullet in all of this,” said David Gordon, a governing board member and superintendent of Sacramento County schools. “I don’t think any project or program is going to create improved performance. I think it’s back to the basics. I think it’s good teaching and good leadership in schools [that] produces improved student performance.”

Fourth-grade students scored 221 on average out of a 500-point scale, with 33 percent at the proficient level, which is considered at grade level. Eighth-graders scored an average of 264, with 32 percent considered proficient. The scores for each grade are four points higher than they were in 1992.

While the overall scores remain relatively unchanged, researchers say there are important trends—and progress—taking place within subgroups. Tom Loveless, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, noted that the gap between the lowest and highest performers has consistently been shrinking from year to year.

The lowest 10th percentile of fourth-graders scored an average of 170 in 1992 and 175 in 2009, and those in the 25th percentile increased their average from 194 to 199 during the same years. Meanwhile, the highest-performing students jumped three points, from 261 to 264.

“To the extent that there are gains, they’re found amongst the lowest achievers,” Loveless said.

He suspects that pattern is related to the enactment of more accountability systems at the state and federal level that focus attention on the lowest achievers and punish or reward schools based on progress with that group.

The report also offers a snapshot of how students are doing across racial and ethnic lines as the face of the average United States classroom continues to change. White students made up 56 percent of fourth-grade test takers in 2009, compared with 73 percent in 1992, reflecting the growing diversity of schools in America. In the same period, Hispanic students have increased from 7 to 20 percent.