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If any report stands a chance of piercing the Babel-like discourse surrounding educational reform in the United States it may be the just-released overview of progress in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. Entitled ``America's Challenge: Accelerating Academic Achievement,'' the report is a summary of findings compiled in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a project mandated by Congress.

This ongoing assessment has periodically gauged the performance of students in basic subject areas. The report shows that there has been little discernible progress during the past two decades, and some loss of ground.

A common theme of the findings is the surface nature of much learning. Students can read, but often not analytically. Few write well, and most do not communicate effectively. They are familiar with events that shaped American history, but don't understand their significance or connections. More pupils are gaining basic skills, yet fewer grasp how to apply them.

Factors inhibiting progress include too much passive learning (such as from teacher lectures), insufficient parental support in doing schoolwork, and the avoidance of challenging courses by many students.