California students this year showed greater improvement in their math skills than at any time during the last decade, although they still ranked among low scorers nationally, alongside youngsters in Georgia, Arkansas and Hawaii, according to test results released Thursday.

Reading scores for California's fourth- and eighth-graders, however, hardly budged and remain in the bottom fourth of states' rankings.

Welcoming the math gains, teachers and education officials said pupils benefited from California's 5-year-old academic standards, which require a uniform and toughened sequence of instruction starting in the earliest grades with addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and simple algebraic equations.

"Clearly, something good is going on in California," said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I think the 1998 standards have had a positive impact on math learning" in the state.

Overall, 25% of California fourth-graders were proficient or better in math this year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, up from 12% in 1992. In eighth grade, 22% of students were at least proficient this year, up from 16% in 1992, a jump that some experts attributed to a recent emphasis on algebra in the last year of middle school.

The California math gains mirrored similar increases nationally, as other states, under federal pressure to raise scores, also changed curricula, textbooks and teaching methods.

Across the country, 31% of fourth-graders were proficient in math, up from 17% a decade ago; 27% of eighth-graders reached the proficient level, compared with 20% in 1992.

Proficiency represents "solid academic performance" and is the target level on the tests. Students at that level "demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter," said the U.S. Department of Education.

The federal academic performance gauge was provided for all states and three jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia. The national results were not broken out by campus, school district or county.

In all, more than 657,000 students in only the fourth- and eighth-grades nationwide took the tests.

According to the scores, the top-performing fourth-graders in math came from New Hampshire, Kansas and Minnesota; at least 42% of the students in those states were proficient or better.

By contrast, the lowest-performing fourth-graders came from Mississippi, New Mexico and the District of Columbia. In those two states, 17% of fourth-graders were proficient; in the nation's capital, only 7% were.

The scores offered several pieces of good news, educators said, including the fact that greater numbers of students were moving up the ladder of the four performance rungs, which are: below basic, basic, proficiency and advanced.

Just half of fourth- and eighth-graders in 1990 reached at least the basic level of competency in math. This year, 77% of fourth-graders reached that level or higher on the multiple-choice and short-response questions that involve addition, fractions, simple geometry and word problems. Sixty-eight percent of eighth-graders showed at least basic skills in long division, geometry, basic algebra and more complicated word problems.

"We're making progress, [but] it's not something that is going to happen overnight," said Jim Rubillo, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "This is all about whether someone is prepared to participate in the emerging economy."

Federal education officials also pointed out that African American, Latino and low-income students accounted for some of the biggest increases in math since 2000, the last time that portion of the exam was given.

But big gaps remain among ethnic groups. For example, 48% of Asian/Pacific Islanders in the fourth grade were at least proficient in math, compared with 42% of whites, 15% of Latinos and 10% of blacks. Similar, although less dramatic, differences were evident in reading levels.

Overall, the reading scores of the nation's fourth- and eighth-graders offered less reason to celebrate than the math results. The performance nationally of both grade levels showed little improvement over the last decade. Nationally, 30% of fourth-graders were proficient or better in reading, up slightly from 27% in 1992. California followed the same pattern.

Fourth- and eighth-graders once again exhibited no significant progress in their reading skills despite billions of dollars spent on new phonics textbooks and smaller class sizes. Only 21% of fourth-graders showed proficiency, compared with 19% in 1992 on multiple-choice comprehension questions and short essays. Similarly, 22% of eighth-graders were proficient, the same percentage as in 1998, the earliest data available.

Teachers and principals sought to explain the differences in math and reading scores by focusing on California's large population of relatively recent immigrants from other countries. They pointed out that the math questions require reasoning and arithmetic skills, while the reading questions take more comprehension, something that is doubly difficult for students still learning English.

In fact, California had a higher percentage of test takers with limited English skills than any other state: About 30% of its fourth-graders, and about 20% of its eighth-graders, fell into that category.

"In math, whether you speak English or Spanish, you're both on an equal playing field," said Jose Herrera, a math teacher at Washington Middle School in Pasadena. "If you were to read a poem by Langston Hughes, and you already know English, you've got a faster start than a Spanish-speaking student who may have to stop and translate things."

Lloyd Houske, principal of Cahuenga Elementary School near downtown Los Angeles, where many students are still learning English, said the differing performance in math and reading did not surprise him.

"Bilingual children are smart; they just don't have as many English skills, so their reading scores aren't so high," he said. "Math is something they grasp. It has a different kind of universal language to it."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Showing improvement

Despite improved math scores on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress test, CaliforniaOs fourth- and eighth-graders ranked in the bottom third of states. Here is a look at the fourth-grade level:

*

Sample math questions

The perimeter of a square is 36 inches. What is the length of one side of the square?

A. 4 inches

B. 6 inches

C. 9 inches

D. 18 inches

How much change will John get back from $5 if he buys two notebooks that cost $1.80 each?

A. $1.40

B. $2.40

C. $3.20

D. $3.60

(Answers: C, A)

*

Test performance

Percentages of fourth-grade students who scored at a level of proficient or better on the test.

The track record

*--* Math proficiency 1992 1996 2000 2003 U.S. 17% 20% 22% 31% California 12% 11% 13% 25% Reading proficiency% 1992% 1998% 2002% 2003 U.S. 27% 28% 30% 30% California 19% 20% 21% 21%

*--*

*

2003 reading proficiency

*--* Best Connecticut 43% Massachusetts 40% New Hampshire 40% New Jersey 39% Colorado 37% Minnesota 37% Vermont 37% National average 30% California 21% Worst Louisiana 20% Nevada 20% New Mexico 19% Mississippi 18% District of Columbia 11%

*--*

2003 math proficiency

*--* Best New Hampshire 43% Kansas 42% Minnesota 42% Massachusetts 41% Connecticut 41% North Carolina 41% Vermont 41% National average 31% California 25% Worst Alabama 19% Mississippi 17% New Mexico 17% District of Columbia 7%

*--*

Source: U.S. Department of Education

*

Times staff writer Erika Hayasaki contributed to this report.

*

Complete state and national test scores are available on the Internet at nces.ed.gov/nations reportcard/