A study released Tuesday takes a much rosier view than usual of American schools and families. Contrary to popular belief, it says, U.S. schools have gotten better over the past 20 years, and better-educated parents and smaller families are helping students learn.

The Rand Corp. study should dispel the notion that schools and parents are failing the nation's children, its authors said."Prevailing perceptions are too gloomy," said David W. Grissmer, who led the study at Rand, research institute based in Santa Monica, Calif.

The researchers found "no support for charges that our families, students, schools and public policies are failing," Grissmer said.

The study was based on students ages 13 and 17 who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests between 1970 and 1990. The scores were analyzed alongside information from government surveys of families.

Education Secretary Richard Riley, in announcing the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results in August, said that although American students were doing somewhat better than they did 20 years ago, the progress was inadequate.

The Rand study said standardized test scores for black and Hispanic teenagers improved significantly between the mid-1970s and 1990, narrowing the gap with white students, who made much smaller gains.

The average math and reading scores of students ages 13 and 17 increased about 3 percentile points for whites, 11 points for Hispanics, and 19 points for blacks.

That suggests that desegregation and increased spending on schools, especially programs targeted at minority students, have paid off, the study says. Early education and nutrition programs for poor children also may have helped.

"The country should be cautious about dismantling programs until we know which deserve to go and which to continue," Grissmer said.

While minority students benefited from changes both at school and at home, the small improvement in white students' scores seems to be tied to family life, the study said.

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The factor that helped students most was better-educated parents, the study found. For example, in 1970, 38 percent of the mothers had not completed high school; in 1990, all but 17 percent had completed high school.

Smaller families also benefited students, the study found. Average family incomes remained stable while average family size decreased, leaving more money to care for each child.

The Rand analysis found that two trends that have worried policy makers - an increase in working mothers and an increase in single-parent households - had no significant effect when considered alone.

However, there was an indirect effect on children from single-parent households. They were more likely to be poor, and poor children don't score as high.

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