The National Assessment of Educational Progress, referred to at the Nation's Report Card, tested 52,000 students in reading and 49,000 in math across 1,670 school districts in 2009.
Students scored an average of 288 out of 500 points in reading comprehension, two points above the 2005 score but still below the 1992 average of 292. Thirty-eight percent of 12th grade students were classified as at or above the "proficient" level, while 74 percent were considered at or above "basic."
"Today's report suggests that high school seniors' achievement in reading and math isn't rising fast enough to prepare them to succeed in college and careers," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
Cornelia S. Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees development tests, said she was encouraged by the fact reading scores had gone up in recent years.
"And we'd like it to get back up to the level it once was," she said.
The trouble advancing student reading skills extends across grade levels. Reading scores for fourth and eighth grade students in 2009 were only four points higher than in 1992.
The No Child Left Behind law championed by President George W. Bush set a goal for every student to read and do math at their grade level by 2014, but the national assessment scores indicate students are still trailing significantly behind. In 2009, 33 percent of fourth grade and 32 percent of eighth grade students scored at the proficient level in reading.
In a statement, Duncan noted that President Barack Obama set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade, and that in a survey that accompanied the reading and math test, 86 percent of seniors said they expect to graduate college.
"They'll only succeed if we challenge and support them to raise their academic performance and offer them the financial support they need to pay for college," Duncan said.
He said he is confident that goal can be reached with the efforts the administration currently has under way, including providing $40 million in Pell Grants, supporting states as they raise academic standards, and investing in efforts for states to create data systems to help track student performance.
The scores released Thursday also show that a stubborn achievement gap remains across racial and ethnic groups. There was no significant change in the score or gap in reading for black and or Hispanic students since 1992. White and Asian students both scored higher than they did in 2005.
Asian students scored an average of 298 points in reading in 2009, higher than any other group. It was the first time since at least 1992 that a minority group outperformed white students on the test.
Orr said further analysis, including a look at course-taking pattern, is needed to further explain the advancements Asian students have made in recent years.
Math scores rose from 150 to 153 between 2005 and 2009. The test was significantly changed in 2005, so a comparison with scores from earlier years was not applicable.
Orr said the improvement between 2005 and 2009 was significant.
"The math framework was made increasingly challenging, but students continued to improve their mathematics performance," Orr said.
Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and the former governor of West Virginia, said many of the students graduating without high school reading and comprehension skills will need to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. He cited federal statistics showing that students in remedial reading courses are three times more likely to drop out of college before earning a bachelor's degree.
"If you end up in the emergency room with an EKG that shows this kind of flat line, someone would be trying to shock you back to life," Wise said in a statement. "The federal government needs to take the same immediate action for the nation's older students."
The results of students in 11 states that volunteered to participate in a pilot state program were also released.
Five states had higher scores in both subjects than the national average: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and South Dakota. Two states, Idaho and Illinois, had scores that were higher in reading but not significantly different in math. New Jersey had a higher math score but a similar national reading score.
Three states scored lower in both subjects: Arkansas, Florida and West Virginia.
Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith said the results indicate there is "much more work ahead," but that he was confident recent reform efforts, along with the state's Race to the Top win, will help increase scores in the years ahead.