The School Reform Commission received preliminary PSSA data yesterday that district officials said showed unprecedented success.

For the first time, more than half of the district's students scored proficient or advanced in reading and math, according to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, district officials said at yesterday's meeting.

But nearly half of the district's 160,000 students are still failing.

Test scores, up for the eighth consecutive year, rose 4.4 percentage points in math over last year, and 3 percentage points in reading over the same time period, according to district figures. Since 2002, math scores have risen by 37.1 percentage points, and 26.8 percentage points in reading.

At this rate, however, students will not achieve total proficiency by 2014, as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Michael Schlesinger, the district's deputy chief of accounting, boasted of more good news for the district. Fewer students are scoring below basic (the lowest PSSA performance level) in both categories, he said. The number of students scoring below basic in math since 2002 has dropped 35.1 percentage points to 24.1 percent, and has dropped 20.7 percentage points in reading to 28.7 percent.

Meanwhile, the achievement gap persists as Asian and whites consistently outperform black and Latino students, though Asians have made considerable gains over whites in both categories.

Although Empowerment schools, the district's lowest-performers, outgained the rest of the district, only 41 percent of students in those schools scored proficient or better in reading, and 46 percent in math.

Students with disabilities, English Language Learners and low-income students also posted gains on test scores.

James E. Lyons, chairman of the Accountability Review Council, an independent body that oversees school-reform plans, applauded the district for its progress, but noted that other districts in the state score higher than the Philadelphia district in both math and reading.

He urged Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her staff to closely examine issues such as alternative education and closing the achievement gap. The council releases an annual report that details the district's academic performance.

The PSSA tests are given to students in 3rd to 8th grades and grade 11, to measure whether schools make adequate yearly progress under the federal law.

Of all the grades, 11th and 8th graders showed the largest increases of students scoring proficient or better in reading, though a national reading test shows that Philadelphia 8th graders rank poorly in that category compared to 8th graders in several other urban districts.

Third-graders saw a decline of 1.2 percentage points in their reading scores, but demonstrated improvement in math with an increase of 7.7 percentage points.

The state will release its own version of the test results by September, Schlesinger said.