WASHINGTON - America's elementary school pupils made solid gains in reading and mathematics in the first years of this decade, while middle school pupils made less progress and older teenagers hardly any, according to federal test results released yesterday.
The results, considered the best measure of the nation's long-term education trends, show that 9-year-old minority pupils made the most gains. In particular, young black pupils significantly narrowed the longtime gap between their math and reading scores and those of higher-achieving white pupils, who also made strong gains.
Older minority teenagers, however, scored about as far behind whites as in previous decades, and scores for all groups pointed to a deepening crisis in the nation's high schools.
The math and reading test, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long-Term Trends, has been given to a representative national sample of pupils ages 9, 13 and 17, every few years since the early 1970s, virtually without modification, and social scientists study it carefully.
The results were from a test given to 28,000 public and private school pupils in all 50 states during fall 2003 and spring 2004. It was the first time the federal Department of Education had administered the test since 1999.
Nine-year-old pupils, on average, earned the highest scores in three decades, in both reading and math.
Regardless of race, the scores of older pupils were less impressive, with a few exceptions.
Seventeen-year-old pupils performed the worst. Average reading and math scores for that group were unchanged from the early 1970s.
Those low scores appeared likely to fuel a debate about how to improve high schools.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to test teenagers during one of their high school years, and President Bush has proposed expanding the testing to include grades nine, 10 and 11.