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A General Accounting Office report questions the math performance levels set for students by a federal agency and warns against using similar standards for reading and writing.

The federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress - popularly known as the Nation's Report Card - set three levels for math achievement two years ago. But the GAO said an investigation "found problems of procedure, of reliability, of validity and of reporting."Eleanor Chelimsky, assistant comptroller general, said the GAO had examined standards being developed for reading and writing proficiency tests and found that "commitments to the further use of levels now being set in similar fashion seem premature."

The achievement levels were defended by Roy Truby, executive director of the assessment board.

"I think setting the standards, deciding what is good enough, how much students ought to know is a judgement," said Truby. "It's more of a judgement than it is science. We're comfortable with what we have done so far. We think it can be improved, that was why it was a trial."

Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich. and the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and panel member Dale E. Kildee, R-Mich., requested the investigation when researchers charged that political pressure skewed the release of a national math-achievement assessment they said was too negative.

The Nation's Report Card, in releasing the first math results according to the levels last Sept. 30, indicated American schoolchildren can do little more than simple calculations.

The math report said just over 60 percent of children in grades four, eight and 12 can perform simple math problems using basic skills. It said that less than 20 percent of those in the three grades can tackle solid grade-level work and that 1 percent or less of the fourth- and eighth-graders, and 2.6 percent of high school seniors can do advanced work.