WASHINGTON - More students are learning the basics when it comes to history and civics, but they aren't rising to the next level, national tests show.

The history and civics tests were given to students nationwide in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades last year, and the results were released yesterday.

History scores increased in all three grades over 2001, the last time that subject was tested. Only fourth graders showed progress since the last civics test, given in 1998. None of the grades saw an increase in students moving beyond a basic competency for either subject.

The gains could counter arguments by critics who say the 2002 No Child Left Behind law has placed too much emphasis on reading and math by requiring those subjects to be tested and led to less time spent on history, civics and other courses.

The Washington-based Center on Education Policy reported last year that a third of elementary-school districts reported cutting back on time for social studies, which includes history and civics. However, a recent government study showed increases in social-studies credits being earned by high schoolers.

Some officials say the extra attention on reading may explain the gains on history and civics tests.

"If kids are learning how to read better, then they can take these assessments. They have a very large reading component to them," said Mark Schneider, commissioner of education statistics at the Education Department.

The progress in history and civics was made by students working at the lowest levels, meaning there have been significantly more students working at or above the basic level than in the past. But there has been no increase in students working at or above the "proficient" level since the last time the tests were given.

Public officials say proficiency is the goal.

Some critics of No Child Left Behind say the law has focused educators' attention on students at the lower end of the spectrum at the expense of students working at higher levels.

"That's a concern, obviously," said Darvin Winick, chair of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. "We're delighted to bring up the lower-performing kids . . . but we haven't brought up the higher-performing kids."

See breakdowns of the history and civics results via http://go.philly.com/resultsEndText