Although South Carolina’s report cards tell a good story about the state of its schools, national test results released Thursday made it clear the state still has room for improvement.

By the numbers

Fourth- and eighth-graders’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are reported on a 0-500 scale. The two subjects are measured on separate scale.

District 2013 4th-grade math 2011 4th-grade math 2013 4th-grade reading 2011 4th grade-reading

South Carolina 237 237 214 215

Nation 241 240 221 220

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress

South Carolina students are trailing the nation in reading and math, and test scores show they haven’t made significant gains during the past two years, according to results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card.

That’s in contrast to the country as a whole making progress on those same tests, with the nation posting its best-ever math scores. Reading scores also reached an all-time high for eighth-graders, and fourth-graders’ scores were bested only by those in 2011.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said South Carolina schools are making gains, but not as fast as he would like. He’s convinced that the state needs to devote more attention to what he described as a desperate problem statewide — reading.

“If you can’t read, you can’t learn,” he said.

He has worked with lawmakers on the Read to Succeed Act, which would strengthen the state’s focus on reading. That proposal will be considered during the upcoming legislative session.

The latest Nation’s Report Card scores aren’t the only indicators showing trouble for South Carolina, and Zais referenced the state’s letter grades that are part of its federal accountability system.

Letter grades fell statewide, although the goals schools had to meet were higher. Still, Zais said the state report card ratings were positive.

“It’s cause for celebration, but it’s tempered celebration,” he said.

NAEP tests were given this year to a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders nationally, and it’s the only exam that allows states to compare elementary and middle students’ academic performance in multiple subjects. Individual district results were not available.

The tests measure achievement at three levels — “basic,” “proficient” and “advanced” — and the aim is to have all students performing at or above the “proficient” level.

Since the tests were last given in 2011, South Carolina students’ average scores declined or remained stagnant, with the exception of eighth-grade reading, where students posted their best scores since 1998. The differences in the 2011 and 2013 scores weren’t statistically significant.

In terms of whether students met the “proficient” benchmark, the state again saw flat or shrinking percentages, with the exception of eighth-grade reading.

South Carolina was one of 11 states that had a lower percentage of fourth- and eighth-graders scoring at or above “proficient” in math compared with the national average; it was one of 14 that fell into that same category for reading.

During a conference call with reporters, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised a handful of states, such as Hawaii and Tennessee, and the District of Columbia for making noteworthy gains, and he said that happened because leaders took on difficult and controversial work in raising standards and focusing on teacher effectiveness.

He said the flip side of courage would be those who are more timid, and that’s where “you’re seeing less progress.”

“The 2013 NAEP report card provides encouraging but modest signs of progress in reading and math for U.S. students,” he said. “U.S. students are still well behind their peers in top-performing nations. If America’s students are to remain competitive in a knowledge-based economy, our public schools must greatly accelerate the rate of progress of the last four years and do more to narrow America’s large achievement gaps.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.