Most students can't analyze what they read, can't handle moderately challenging math problems and have a limited understanding of American history, according to a bleak picture of student achievement released Wednesday by the Education Department.

The Nation's Report Card analyzes student achievement in the late 1980s and compares it to student performance 20 years ago. Things haven't changed much.The findings come exactly one year after President Bush met with the nation's governors in Charlottesville, Va., to set educational goals for the year 2000.

"Taken in total, the results of The Nation's Report Card provide evidence that we have a daunting challenge before us if we are to reach our national student achievement goal by the 21st century," the report said.

"Cumulative evidence shows that, for any curriculum area, only about half of our high school seniors may be graduating with the ability `to use their minds' to think through subject-related information in any depth," it said.

The executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals said the results show schools need more money, the school day and the school year need to be lengthened and parents must be more involved.

"The report shows our actions haven't kept up with our rhetoric. The gap between what is happening and what should be happening is just growing," said Samuel Sava.

The report tracked performance levels of children in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades. The picture, Education Assistant Secretary Christopher Cross said, is "discouraging."

Among the key findings:

- READING AND WRITING: Most students get the gist of what they read but have "considerable difficulty" analyzing and synthesizing what they have read.

Many students have difficulty communicating effectively in writing, with less than half of students producing at least adequate informative and persuasive writing samples.

Compared to 20 years ago, overall reading is about the same today, or slightly better, and writing achievement has remained stable.

- MATHEMATICS: Only 21 percent of the 9-year-olds and 73 percent of the 13-year-olds displayed a firm grasp of basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and of beginning problem-solving. Half of the high school students could not handle moderately challenging math material.

Compared to 20 years ago, recent performance shows gradual, yet somewhat uneven, improvement.

- SCIENCE: Students' knowledge of science and their ability to use what they know "appear remarkably limited."

Compared to 20 years ago, science achievement is worse today.

- HISTORY AND CIVICS: Students have a "moderate" understanding of some historical events but are far from displaying a coherent grasp of how the events interacted to shape the nation. For example, 56 percent of fourth-graders knew the names of Columbus's ships, but only 36 percent knew why he sailed to America.

As for civics, only 51 percent of seniors knew that religious freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution, while virtually all knew that the accused have a right to an attorney.

Student civics achievement was better 20 years ago, the report said.

- GEOGRAPHY: High school seniors demonstrated "generally low performance."