WASHINGTON &

After years of dreary news and late-night comedy routines about American children's ignorance of their nation's history, federal researchers are reporting significant test score gains in fourth grade U.S. history and civics, as well as the first significant increase in scores for any high school subject in eight years.




Two reports released Wednesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the federal government's standard measure of public school achievement, said the percentage of fourth graders performing at or above the basic level in U.S. history increased from 64 percent in 1994 to 70 percent last year. In civics, the percentage scoring at or above basic climbed from 69 percent in 1998 to 73 percent last year.




The percent of 12th graders scoring at or above basic in U.S. history increased from 55 percent in 2001 to 61 percent in 2006. The National Assessment Governing Board, which conducts the regular test sampling of U.S. schools, said in a statement this was "the first time since 1998 that high school students have had a significant increase in achievement on a NAEP assessment."




The board noted that on other tests during the same time period &

"in reading, math, science and civics &

results have indicated flat or declining performance."




Experts said the rise in fourth-grade scores may be linked to strenuous efforts in several districts to improve the teaching of reading to students in kindergarten through third grade.




If students can read and comprehend better, said Karin Chenoweth, a writer for the nonprofit Achievement Alliance group, then they are better prepared to absorb the material in their textbooks.




"In the last NAEP reading report, fewer students &

particularly African-American and Latino students &

scored below the basic level in the reading test, which means that more students are able to read and learn about history and civics," said Chenoweth, author of a new book, " 'It's Being Done': Academic Success in Unexpected Schools."




"This could very well explain the higher history and civic scores at fourth grade, which are most pronounced among African American and Latino students," she said.




The improvements in test scores at all three grade levels "may also mean that much of the hand-wringing about schools narrowing the curriculum to teach only what is tested on state reading and math tests is overdone," Chenoweth said, "especially in light of the fact that the fourth-grade science scores are also up."