The nation's 9-year-olds are doing better when it comes to reading and math, but the same can't be said about older students.

The 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card, also shows that achievement gaps between white and black and Hispanic students remain, but have narrowed.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings (search) said the results, released Thursday, show that the No Child Left Behind (search) law, President Bush's signature education policy, is helping raise achievement levels.

"We're focusing on policy and getting results and we're getting results," she said in an interview. Among the law's requirements are yearly testing of students in reading and math in grades three to eight, and public reporting of scores for all major groups of students.

"What we have today is some more data that says we're getting better," said Darvin M. Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the exam, which is periodically given to 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds to measure what they know.

Last year, 9-year-olds earned their highest scores ever in both subjects since the tests were first given -- in 1971 for reading and 1973 for math. On a scale of 0-500, 9-year-olds scored 208 in reading in 1971, compared with 212 in 1999 and 219 in 2004. In math, they scored 219 in 1973, 232 in 1999 and 241 in 2004.

Most of their improvement came after 1999, the last time this pair of tests was given by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

Education officials attributed the strong showing among 9-year-olds to the emphasis placed in recent years on elementary schools and getting children reading and learning as early as possible.

"It's easier to change things earlier on than it is later on," said Russ Whitehurst, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Overall results were mixed for 13-year-olds, but were worse for 17-year-olds.

Thirteen-year-olds earned their highest math scores ever, but did only a few points better in reading than in 1971. Their reading scores also were about the same as in 1999.

Their reading score in 1971 was 255, rising to 259 in 1999 and staying the same, 259, in 2004. In math their score went up from 255 in 1973 to 276 in 1999, and climbed again to 281 in 2004.

Seventeen-year-olds, meanwhile, continued a troubling, 30-year trend of practically flat scores even though more of them reported taking advanced math courses in high school.

Their reading score of 285 was the same in 1971 and 2004, while it was 282 in 1999. Math scores increased from 304 in 1973 to 308 in 1999 before falling back to 307 in 2004.

Charles Smith, executive director of the assessment governing board, attributed their performance to the traditional slacking off that comes with being a senior in high school.

"The problem with senioritis is alive and well," Smith told AP Radio. "I think people at the high school level across the nation would report the same thing. The question is how do you motivate students to do their best."

Spellings said the report shows, too, that secondary education needs more attention.

"We need to go to work," she said.

Among the racial groups, most gaps in reading and math scores showed some narrowing.

—Black and Hispanic students scored higher in reading than in the 1970s, with 9-year-olds in both groups posting their best scores yet. They were the only age group to do significantly better than in 1999. Every age group, except for Hispanic 13-year-olds, narrowed the achievement gap with whites since the 1970s.

—In math, black and Hispanic students scored higher than in the 1970s, with 9- and 13-year-olds in both groups earning their highest marks in the history of the exam. Only black and Hispanic 17-year-olds failed to improve on their performance from five years earlier. All age groups, except for Hispanic 9-year-olds, have cut into the achievement gap with their white counterparts since the 1970s.

Participation in National Assessment of Educational Progress is voluntary among schools and students. Some 28,000 students in public and private schools -- 14,000 for each subject -- sat for the exam during the 2003-2004 school year.

Thursday's results were national only. State-by-state test results will be released in the fall.