The nation's schools received an upbeat report card in math Thursday, but the bad news continued for California as its fourth-graders lagged behind their peers in 40 states and came out ahead of only those in Mississippi.
California eighth-graders performed somewhat better but still ranked behind students in 32 states in the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress, an arm of the federal government that monitors academic achievement.
The test found that 54% of California's fourth-graders are not mastering essential basic skills such as measuring something longer than a ruler. Nationally, 36% of the students fell into that category.
Among the state's eighth-graders, 49% cannot solve a problem involving money or identify the fraction that represents the shaded portion of a rectangle. Nationwide, the figure was 38%.
The report also found that only one in 10 of the state's fourth-graders and one in six of the older students are considered "proficient" in math, a skill level higher than merely mastering the basics.
Those findings are likely to fuel criticism that math "reform" efforts of recent years have not produced gains.
Opponents of the "reform" philosophy complain that it does not pay enough attention to basic skills and memorization. Gov. Pete Wilson joined in that view Thursday, saying the results were "deplorable and intolerable" and point up the need "now more than ever to teach basic computational math skills in the classroom."
State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin responded to the poor showing by renewing her call for academic standards that would be both demanding and mandatory, as well as statewide tests to monitor student performance and a system of rewards and sanctions.
Those standards and tests are being developed but are still several years away. Eastin said most states that have those policies, such as Texas, North Carolina and Kentucky, have made substantial gains.
"Absent a clear set of standards, many districts don't know what they're supposed to do to improve," Eastin said, and the state has no way of keeping track of performance.
Forty-three states, the District of Columbia and the island of Guam participated in the fourth-grade testing program, which has monitored trends in academic achievement among public and private school students since the 1970s. Some jurisdictions did not test all grade levels. Forty states participated in the eighth-grade testing program.
Relative to most other states, California had high a percentage of students whose native language is not English--13% of the sample--and a high percentage of poor students, who constituted 25% of the students tested.
But it was unclear how the demographics of California's students affected the outcomes. California's poor students in the fourth grade ranked last compared to similar pupils elsewhere. The state's higher-income students, represented by those whose parents graduated from college, did slightly better but were still 35th out of 43 states.
California students also ranked low regardless of ethnic group--with white students among the lowest-scoring white students and African American, Latino and Asian American students among the lowest-scoring members of those groups as well.
Nationally, students in grades four, eight and 12 extended a six-year streak during which the percentage of pupils mastering basic mathematics skills has risen rapidly. The percentage of fourth-graders functioning at a basic level or above rose from 59% to 64% between 1994 and 1996. Eighth- and 12th-graders made similar gains.
Even so, only a quarter of eighth-graders and one in five fourth-graders met the higher criteria of proficiency.
Those lapses become magnified by the 12th grade, where only 16% of students demonstrated proficiency in math as they prepared to graduate last spring. An analysis by the National Assessment of Educational Progress said, however, that seniors may actually know far more math but, because the outcome didn't matter to them, lacked the motivation to do well on the test.
U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said he was generally encouraged by the "solid progress" measured by the test that is known informally as the nation's report card.
"These results are another sign that we are turning the corner when it comes to improving American education," Riley said.
But he cautioned, "We cannot rest on our laurels. Our national scores may be going up, but we are still far behind world-class standards."
The 41-nation Third International Math and Science Study, issued last November, found that U.S. eighth-graders were below world averages in mathematics achievement. Since then, President Clinton has been campaigning for national academic standards and a test that would enable parents to see how their students, states and school districts measure up. The National Assessment of Educational Progress samples students and does not produce scores for individuals or districts.