Philadelphia schoolchildren fall into the middle of the pack or lag other pupils in 17 other big-city districts in reading, according to test scores released Thursday.

Eleven of the 17 other big-city districts who participated in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exam did better than Philadelphia's fourth-graders. Seven urban districts outperformed Philadelphia eighth graders.

The percentage of fourth-grade students who scored at grade level on the national test was 11 percent, lower than the average of 23 percent in other large cities nationwide. Fifteen percent of eighth graders scored at grade level, a number that was not statistically different from their peers in other big urban districts.

Students in both grades fared worse than the national average - Philadelphia fourth graders' average score was 195, and the U.S. average was 220. Philadelphia eighth graders scored 247, and nationally, the average was 262.

The 2009 results mark the first time Philadelphia has participated in the country's "Trial Urban District Assessment" program, and so there's no way to compare students' progress over time.

The test was given to about 1,300 fourth and 1,300 eighth graders at about 90 schools citywide. The schools and students tested reflected the district's overall demographics, officials said.

In Philadelphia and the other cities, there were gaps in performance between white students and Hispanic and black students, and poor students and those who are not poor.

District officials said the number of city students who scored below basic in the reading test was "a concern." Sixty-one percent of fourth graders and 44 percent of eighth graders scored below basic.

"Since the time students took the exam in early 2009, the district has implemented targeted interventions in our high-needs schools, rather than employing multiple sources of interventions," a spokesman said in a release.

The district is also redesigning its core curriculum, focusing on early reading in high-needs schools.

Michael Schlesinger, the district's deputy for assessment, said that officials "look at this as a baseline, anxious, of course, to see how we do in two years. I think if interventions are implemented well, we will see increases down the line."

The NAEP is different than the Pennsylvania Standard of School Assessment (PSSA), the state test given annually. The NAEP is considered "the gold standard of educational assessments," Schlesinger said, more rigorous than most state tests.

PSSA scores have risen for seven consecutive years. But that progress has been incremental, and about half of all students still cannot read or do math on grade level.

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or