Improving student achievement is like climbing a mountain — the higher you climb, the harder the next step gets.

SALT LAKE CITY — National math and reading test scores released Tuesday show Utah's students performed in line with national averages in 2011, but they made no significant gains over 2009 results.

The Nation's Report Card statistics are based on assessments given to fourth- and eighth-grade students every two years in reading and math. The results are meant to be a barometer of the state of education in the United States.

"Utah public schools have been able to hold on to their core academic performance levels despite increasing poverty, increasing demographic diversity and decreased funding," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Larry K. Shumway in a prepared statement. "This is not great news, but it's not bad news, and we intend to increase performance as the economy improves and Utah schools obtain new resources to increase academic achievement."

A look at Utah's scores shows fourth-grade students either achieved or slightly surpassed the national average in both math and reading, while the state's eighth-grade students slightly surpassed the national average in reading while performing a little behind the nation in math.

Overall, the state's 2011 performance was not significantly different than its 2009 performance.

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said educators should always strive for improvement, but shouldn't get too discouraged when scores hold steady.

"Improving student achievement is like climbing a mountain — the higher you climb, the harder the next step gets," Buckley said. "It can be pretty hard just to keep pace, let alone see improvement." 

Achievement gaps along socioeconomic and racial lines have been a persistent problem both nationally and in Utah, according to the report card.

Hispanic students in Utah scored behind their peers in all grades and subjects, but the gaps have stayed relatively the same over the years. The gap widened, though not significantly, among eighth grade readers.

Ike Spencer, who serves on a Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee under the State Board of Education, said there are systemic changes that need to take place to address those disparities. Too often, he said, funding for programs geared around making improvements in specific demographic groups is unstable. 

"It goes and then it comes and then it goes," Spencer said. Spencer is the principal at West Lake Junior High in the Granite School District, where 29 languages are spoken.

According to the report card, eighth-grade Hispanic students in Utah are almost 50 percent less likely to score at a basic level in math than fellow white students, and are 78 percent less likely to score at a proficient level in math. However, fourth-grade Hispanic students showed better test results, indicating these students struggle in math between those two grades.

In fourth-grade reading, Hispanic students are 45 percent less likely to test at a basic reading level over white students and 66 percent less likely to test at a proficient level. At the eighth-grade level, Hispanic students actually improved in reading skill, being 31 percent less likely to test basic and 67 percent to test proficient over white students.

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With residents providing humanitarian aid and the state itself opening its doors to refugees, Spencer said he would like to see more follow-through in education funding so schools can better serve those populations.

"Our kindness and our big hearts are way in front of our education system," Spencer said.

In regards to gender, Utah male and female students tested very close to national averages in both reading and math, varying only two to four points above or below the average. One exception is in eighth-grade reading, where Utah girls scored eight points above the combined national average of 264, while boys averaged two points below.

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