Massachusetts ranked first in the country in student performance on a closely watched national test, and Boston scored near the top among large cities, according to results being released Wednesday.
US Education Secretary Arne Duncan held up Massachusetts as an example to the nation, praising 20 years of efforts by Bay State educators to boost performance.
“The ‘Massachusetts Miracle,’ as it’s been described, is actually anything but that,” Duncan said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “Two decades ago . . . they did the hard work of raising standards, strengthening accountability, and investing in new resources, among other important steps.”
Nationwide, this year’s test results were lackluster, showing more losses than gains. Average national scores stagnated in fourth-grade reading and fell in each other area tested, ranging from a one-point dip in fourth-grade math to a three-point drop in eighth-grade math.
Duncan suggested the decline may be in part due to increased assessment of students with special needs, as well as changes in curriculums in many states seeking to improve teaching and raise performance standards.
“Often when there’s significant change in education, you have what [is called an] ‘implementation dip,’ ” Duncan said, noting that Massachusetts’ test scores initially declined after it adopted more demanding standards.
Peggy Carr, acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test every two years in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, said it is too soon to say whether this year’s scores represent the beginning of a downward trend.
“We don’t know yet if these changes that we’re talking about today are long term,” Carr told reporters. “I think we need to be cautious and . . . wait to see what will happen in 2017.”
The test, which has gauged student achievement since 1969, is the country’s most consistent measure of K-12 progress. Locally, the scores sounded a positive note as Massachusetts weighs a potential switch to a new annual standardized test.
The Commonwealth typically performs well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card. The state led this year’s rankings in fourth-grade reading and math, and in eighth-grade math.
In eighth-grade reading, both Massachusetts and Vermont scored a single point below New Hampshire, reflecting generally strong performance across the New England states. The tests are scored on a scale of 0 to 500.
Among 21 urban districts included in the NAEP results, Boston was second only to Charlotte, N.C., in eighth-grade math and fell behind Charlotte and two Florida counties in eighth-grade reading.
In fourth-grade scores, the Hub fell below four districts in reading and five districts in math.
Compared with 2013, the last year the test was taken, Boston saw slight declines in math scores for both Grade 4 — where results dipped by a single point, and Grade 8 — where they dropped by two points.
But in reading, city schools showed gains in both grades. Fourth-grade reading scores improved by five points, while eighth-grade reading scores improved by one point.
In Boston, as in statewide scores, large gaps persisted between white students and black and Hispanic students.
In Boston’s fourth-grade results, both black and Hispanic students were more than 20 points below their white peers. In eighth grade, those gaps expanded to more than 30 points in reading and more than 40 points in math.
“We are very pleased to see our students continually doing well compared to their peers in other large districts,” Michael O’Neill, chairman of the Boston School Committee, said in a statement. “However, we are disappointed the achievement gap is not narrower.’’
Massachusetts students have scored at the top of all categories in the test for a decade.
In 2013, Massachusetts tied with New Hampshire and Minnesota for first place in fourth-grade math and with Maryland and New Hampshire in fourth-grade reading.
In 2011, the Bay State tied with Connecticut and New Jersey for the top spot in eighth-grade reading, and it tied with Vermont for that category in 2007.
In 2005 and 2009, Massachusetts stood alone at the top of the scores in each of the four categories.
Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said such scores are “no small feat,” but that educators must never become complacent.
Chester said he was concerned by the state’s three-point drop in eighth-grade math scores and by the performance of Hispanic students in the eighth-grade reading test, where they lagged behind Hispanic students nationwide. But he said he was generally pleased by the results.
“We are still at the top of all the states in fourth grade and eighth grade, in both reading and mathematics,” he said. “Our educators and our citizens should be quite proud of that.”
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.