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A two-decade climb in fourth-grade mathematics achievement across the country ended this year, while eighth-grade performance edged upward, the federal government reported Wednesday. D.C. public schools posted sharp gains in math in both grades.

Nationally, results from the 2009 federal testing led many politicians and educators to conclude that the United States must accelerate progress in math to compete in the global economy. Many also asserted that advances made under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which stressed annual testing and school accountability, are petering out. They pointed to the disappointing scores as a rationale for a new round of school reform.

Locally, the National Assessment of Educational Progress data showed that students from D.C. schools — regular and charter — are making significant strides in math even though they still lag far behind the national average. The federal scores also validate, to some extent, gains made on annual citywide tests in the past two years for the independently operated charter schools and by the school system under Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

“This is progress in the face of challenge,” said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment with the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education Department.

On a 500-point scale, scores for the District’s public students rose to 219 in fourth grade, from 214 in 2007; and to 254 in eighth grade, from 248 in 2007.

The average fourth-grade math score for national public and private students was 240 on the same scale. Viewed another way, 39 percent of the students tested nationally were rated proficient or better in the subject. Both results were unchanged from the last round of testing in 2007. Black and Hispanic students, who historically trail white students in academic achievement, did not narrow the disparities. The black-white score gap in fourth-grade math remained 26 points and the Hispanic-white gap held at 21 points.

“Seeing stuff flat-line is not what we want as a country — seeing achievement gaps that are unacceptably large,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “The status quo isn’t good enough. We have to get dramatically better.”

David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets testing policy, said schools need better-trained math teachers, common academic standards and perhaps longer school days and years. Above all, he said, they need more public awareness and pressure for action.

“We’re losing ground to our international competitors every year,” Driscoll, a former math teacher, said. “It’s a situation that calls for dramatic improvement. Unfortunately there seems to be apathy across the country.”

Scores on the fourth-grade math test had risen at every previous interval since 1990, when the national average stood at 213.

The 2009 national testing sampled 168,000 fourth-graders and 161,000 eighth-graders nationwide to gauge knowledge and skills in five areas: number properties and operations; measurement; geometry; data analysis, statistics and probability; and algebra. The national results include scores from public and private schools. Separately, an analysis of state and D.C. scores shows trends in public schools.

In fourth grade, students were expected to solve a problem such as 301 minus 75 (67 percent found the correct answer of 226). They were also asked to plot a set of three given points and fill in three others on a two-axis grid to create a rectangle. (Twenty-seven percent answered fully and correctly.)

In eighth grade, they were asked to analyze the probability of picking a green pencil, sight unseen, from a stack of six red, four green and five blue pencils. (Seventy-seven percent answered correctly that the odds were four out of 15.) They were also asked to find an algebraic expression for the length of a rectangle, given that the length is 3 feet less than twice the width (w in feet). Fifty-one percent got that right: 2w minus 3.

The eighth-grade average score on the test rose to 283, from 281 in 2007. In 1996, the eighth-grade score had been 270.

Among states, Maryland was one of a handful to post gains in fourth-grade math. Its average score of 244 was up from 240 in 2007. There were no significant changes in Maryland’s eighth-grade math score or in Virginia’s scores.

Maryland officials credited a move toward a statewide curriculum, as well as renewed focus on teacher training, for gains in math. In the District, Michael Moody, a special assistant to Rhee for academics, said math instructional specialists have been placed in schools in the past two years and that teachers have been trained in how to make the subject more fun for students through games.

“It got them to push into higher-level thinking rather than just memorizing their times tables,” Moody said. But D.C. officials stressed that it was still unclear exactly which factors led to the rise in scores.

The D.C. gains were notable, federal officials said, in part because a higher proportion of city students with disabilities took the national test this year than in 2007. In addition, the D.C. scores compare well to those from urban public schools nationwide, which rose four points on the eighth-grade math test but saw no significant change on the fourth-grade math test.

However, the D.C. scores were far below the national public school averages of 239 in fourth grade and 282 in eighth grade.