High School seniors in the USA are performing slightly better in maths and reading than they did in the middle of the last decade, new test results show, but a large majority continue to fall short of the federal standard for proficiency.
Results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress documented a modest rise in achievement for 12th-graders since 2005. Reading scores rose two points on a 500-point scale, and maths scores rose three points on a 300-point scale.
But analysts said the federal test results offer plenty of reason for concern. The scores mean that 38 per cent of seniors demonstrated proficiency in reading and 26 per cent reached that level in maths. In addition, reading scores remain lower than they were in 1992.
And the report found essentially no progress in closing achievement gaps that separate white students from their black and Hispanic peers.
Those results suggest that public schools must make quantum leaps to approach President Obama's goal of college and career readiness for all graduates. The District of Columbia and dozens of states (including Maryland, but not Virginia) have adopted new national standards for what students should learn in maths and English language arts from kindergarten onwards.
Those standards, generally accepted to be tougher than the array of benchmarks states had previously held, also point toward the president's goal.
"We've got a huge mountain to climb if we're serious about college readiness for everyone," said Chester E Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
Mr Finn said the federal test results have implications for the nation's ability to compete globally. "We're not getting worse," he said, "but we're not getting better. And the rest of the world is getting better faster."
Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said: "With the entire flurry over reform and major pushes among states, the results are not showing the upward trends we want to see."
The tests were given to a national sample of about 52,000 students in reading and 49,000 in maths. Because the maths testing was retooled in 2005, no comparisons were possible with maths results from earlier years.
Eleven states (not including Maryland or Virginia) also volunteered for a testing programme that shows how their own high school seniors are performing. Results indicate that seniors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, Connecticut and South Dakota beat the national average in reading and maths. Students in Arkansas, Florida and West Virginia scored lower than the average in both subjects. Results were mixed in Idaho, Illinois and New Jersey.
In maths, students were asked to show a range of skills in algebra, statistics, data analysis and geometry.
Experts note one challenge with the federal testing: high school seniors are often weary of tests, and it is unclear how much effort they put into an assessment that does not count toward their grades or college applications.
Results are available at www.nationsreportcard.gov.