In West Virginia and rural counties like Calhoun, ed-watchers bemoan the achievement scores of students, but the fact is the problem is nationwide.

America's eighth graders are falling behind in math and reading, while fourth graders are doing slightly better in reading, according to the latest results from the Nation's Report Card .

But there were some exceptions to the findings, which also showed declines among fourth graders in math.

Mississippi and the District of Columbia showed gains, along with some other big-city school districts.

Nationwide, a little more than a third of eighth graders are proficient in reading and math. About a third of fourth graders are proficient in reading, while more than 40% of fourth graders are proficient in math.

The nationwide test is given to a random sampling of students in the fourth and eighth grades every two years.

Students made big gains in math in the 1990s and 2000s but have shown little improvement since then. Reading scores have risen a little since the tests began in 1992.

The decline in both reading and math performance among eighth grade students preparing to enter high school was especially concerning, authorities said.

"Eighth grade is a transitional point in preparing students for success in high school, so it is critical that researchers further explore the declines we are seeing here, especially the larger, more widespread declines across states we are seeing in reading," Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics told reporters during a conference call.

Both low- and high-achieving eighth graders slipped in reading, but the declines were generally worse for lower-performing students.

Carr said it's up to researchers and other to figure out why scores fell. "The assessment is designed to tell you what, not why," she said.

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, said it's hard to find a coherent story across different state and local school districts, but that he hoped the results would "spur us to do something a little more vigorous."

The nation's large-city public schools — they educate more poor students and English language learners — also saw good news in the results. Big-city schools still performed below the nation as a whole, but further narrowed the gap.

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