Kentucky is the only state to show increases in reading scores among both fourth- and eighth-graders for 2007-09 on a national test.
Kentucky also is one of only three states with a "statistically significant" increase in reading scores among fourth-graders, and one of only nine states with such a rise in eighth-grade reading scores for 2007-09.
The results from the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — sometimes called "the nation's report card" — were released in Washington on Wednesday.
The test of reading and math skills was administered to selected students in all 50 states last year. Math scores were released in October.
Overall, Wednesday's report shows that eighth-graders across the U.S. have improved their reading comprehension scores since 2007, while national results for fourth graders are unchanged.
Kentucky educators said Wednesday they're pleased with the state's results on the test, particularly the fact that fourth- and eighth-graders' scores topped national averages.
Kentucky fourth-graders scored 226 on the reading scale, compared with an average of 220 for eighth-graders nationwide. The state's eighth-graders had a score of 267, compared with a national average of 262.
Officials said, however, improvement is still needed.
For example, 39 percent of the state's white fourth-graders scored at or above "proficient" level in reading for 2009, down from the national proficiency average of 41 percent for whites.
Some 13 percent of African-American students in fourth grade in Kentucky reached proficiency in 2009, down from 15 percent for black fourth-graders nationally.
Among Kentucky's white eighth-graders, 35 percent reached proficiency in 2009 compared with 49 percent for whites nationally. Thirteen percent of Kentucky's black eighth-graders were proficient, which topped the national average of 13 percent for their counterparts nationwide.
Richard Innes, an educational analyst with the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions and a frequent critic of Kentucky educational policies, said such numbers are reasons for concern.
"When you think about it, 35 percent in eighth grade for reading, means basically that about two out of three kids in the state aren't reading adequately," Innes said Wednesday.
Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, agreed that challenges remain.
"The news that we have made significant gains is great," she said Wednesday. "But we're not trying to hide that there is still work to be done."
Gross attributed the state's increased NAEP scores to several factors. Among other things, she cited the federally funded Reading First program, which provides reading coaches for many elementary schools; the state-funded Read To Achieve program, which assists students who are struggling with reading; and various efforts to help elementary teachers improve reading instruction.
"I think now we're seeing that early start spilling over into middle school," she said.