Reading scores for fourth and eighth grade students held mostly steady last year, with improvements seen in a handful of states and among low-income students.
Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a series of federally funded achievement tests, rose in two states 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.
"I think it's not surprising given the financial stresses that are being felt across the country," David Gordon, a member of the board that oversees the tests, said of the relatively stagnant results.
While not showing any significant increases or declines, the report does offer a snapshot of the nation's changing demographics and how well students are doing across racial, ethnic, income and geographic lines.
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 time period, Hispanic students have risen from 7 to 20 percent.
And, in another sign of the nation's recession, the number of students eligible for free lunch rose as well — from 32 percent of fourth graders in 2003 to 38 percent in 2009.
Meanwhile, a significant achievement gap remains among several groups. Affluent, white and Asian/Pacific Islander students are scoring higher than low-income, black and Hispanic students.
Each group has made gains, but at about the same rate, resulting in a continuing, sizable gap — 26 points between white and black eighth-grade students, and 24 percent between white and Hispanic students — somewhat smaller than it was in 1992.
The test results come as the Obama administration is urging states to turn around consistently low performing schools with a number of competitive grants aimed at spurring reform in education.
"There's no magic bullet in all of this," said Gordon, superintendent of Sacramento County schools in California. "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 which 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.
The average score of fourth-grade students declined in four states: Alaska, Iowa, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Tom Loveless, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, noted that while the national average has not moved much, there are some patterns beneath the data.
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 — a jump of five points each. 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 gap between male and female students has remained steady or decreased as well, with male students increasing their scores, despite concerns they are not reading as much in an age of video games and text messaging.
"One might speculate that boys are doing other reading that they don't see as reading; maybe texting, social groups, e-mails, interaction with IMs and social networks," Loveless said in an interview.
Other highlights from the report:
— Eighth grade students in city schools increased their average score from 257 to 259.
— Scores for fourth-grade black students in the District of Columbia rose.
— Fourth-grade students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in Connecticut, Florida and New York improved their average score. Nationwide, the average score for this group of students increased at both grade levels.