Last week's national curriculum test results indicated a modest two percentage point gain in 11-year-olds' literacy scores. But this hides a poor performance from boys - who are understood to have gone backwards in comparison with last year.
They also conceal the continuing gulf between the high standards in pupils' reading and low scores for writing.
In fact, it is thought that the only significant improvement in this year's English test was registered in girls' reading scores which pushed the whole average upwards.
Girls are now believed to be hitting the national target for reading, with more than 80 per cent working at the expected standard - level 4, in the key stage 2 tests.
The Department for Education and Employment this week said the separate figures - for boys, girls, reading and writing - were not yet available for publication.
But last year's statistical breakdown for 11-year-olds shows the problem facing ministers: a 75 per cent of girls reached level 4 in reading compared with 68 per cent of boys. The figures for writing were worse: 66 per cent of girls reached level 4 compared with only 48 per cent of boys.
David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has promised that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds will reach level 4 by 2002. This will be difficult unless boys make substantially more progress.
The overall target has been criticised by Don Foster, the Lib-Dems education spokesman, for hiding the underlying problems.
"The Government's approach is simplistic. We need separate targets for reading and writing," he said. "The current target also hides the huge discrepancy between boys and girls."
A Government spokesman said that detailed figures were not available. However, he confirmed that boys continued to cause concern. Ministers, he said, believed that the national literacy strategy would help motivate them.
Maths, where the proportion reaching level 4 dropped by three percentage points, is another source of concern. Much of this can probably be put down to a tough new mental arithmetic test, but not the whole decline. There is better news from the national numeracy project: 11-year-olds taking part have out-performed the national average.
Leader, page 14