WASHINGTON - America's schoolchildren are doing a little better in mathematics than they were a decade ago, but for many of them reading and science skills have declined slightly since 1992.
The government's 1999 National Assessment of Education Progress also shows a widening gap in the test performance of white and black elementary school students on reading, math and science. And black 17-year-olds on average are still four years behind whites in their reading skills.
Sure to become fodder for Al Gore and George W. Bush, both self-described ''education'' candidates, the Education Department report paints a mixed picture of improving and falling test scores and narrowing and widening learning gaps.
The Clinton administration quickly pointed to ''consistent and steady gains'' in math scores in the report. Bush, meanwhile, said the report documents that student achievement stagnated during President Clinton's term in office.
''I will be committed to making sure that we do not repeat the mediocrity of the 1990s,'' Bush said. ''The achievement gap between minority and white students is still too wide.''
There is data both campaigns can use to trumpet their competing education agendas, said Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst with Education Trust, a Washington-based research group.
''This is an easy one for the Bush people,'' she said. ''In the '90s we flatlined. He can say look at the flatness. He'll say look what I did in Texas.''
''For Gore, it's harder,'' she said. ''This corresponds to his time as vice president.''
Gore's campaign staff did not immediately respond to a request for his reaction to the report.
But Education Secretary Richard Riley took up the cudgel. ''There is good news here, too,'' he said, citing the improvement in math scores and better reading skills among 9-year-olds since 1994. ''We know how to improve our schools. ...We need those who count themselves as 'congressional leaders' to get on board.''
Though teaching and testing schoolchildren is largely a state function, the federal government started the National Assessment of Educational Progress more than 30 years ago to measure the nation as a whole.
The tests first were given to a sample of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds - key age levels in a child's school career. The main subjects tested are reading, math and science - though now the program includes tests in art, civics, writing and music. Roughly 48,000 students were tested in that manner last year.
Because each state is free to design and use its own tests, any comparison of one state with another is impossible based on the scores.
But test administrators said the survey still remains the nation's best measure of how elementary, middle school and high-school-age students have learned the core subjects of reading math and science.
''It gives some evidence to answer the popular question of whether or not the schools are improving,'' said Michael T. Nettles, vice chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, the panel that sets the rules for states giving the tests.
While there was a narrowing since 1992 of the gaps in reading skills of 17-year-old blacks and whites and the science skills of 13-years-olds, the disparities were unchanged or increased in every other test category.
''We can't continue to say 'everything is fine' when millions of black and brown children are being left behind,'' said Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust. ''The progress is too slow and the gaps remain painfully wide.''
On the Net:http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard