Maine students scored higher than the national average on the first national report card for vocabulary, released Thursday, but experts say the best strategies for teaching vocabulary have not reached most classrooms.

In addition, there were large achievement gaps across income levels and racial and ethnic groups in the results from the first vocabulary report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of national standardized tests often called “the nation’s report card.”

With a scaled score topping out at 500, Maine eighth-graders averaged 270, above the national average of 263.

Maine fourth-graders in 2011 averaged a score of 219, barely above the national average of 217. The report said the difference was not statistically significant.

Maine ranked fifth in New England for both fourth and eighth grades. At both grade levels, Rhode Island had the lowest average and Massachusetts had the highest.

The scores are based on students’ answers to questions on the reading portion of the test. Vocabulary has long been a part of the test, but this is the first time results have been reported separately.

Vocabulary is getting new emphasis as part of literacy because of recent research showing its vital role in reading comprehension.

Maine’s Learning Results, the statewide standards for schools, mention vocabulary only briefly.

But Lee Anne Larsen, literacy specialist for the Maine Department of Education, said the new Common Core national standards include an entire section on vocabulary development.

Francie Alexander, chief academic officer for Scholastic Education, said students need to learn 65,000 to 75,000 words during their education but will encounter only about 10,000 words in everyday speech.

The questions on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were designed to test students on “Tier II” or “academic” words. They are more common in written rather than spoken language, apply across subject areas and often have multiple meanings.

Students answered multiple-choice questions to show whether they could determine the meaning of a word in the context of a passage and understand the word’s contribution to the meaning of the passage.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

smcmillan@mainetoday.com