After study upon study trashing the nation's schools comes a new report trumpeting "good news about American education": Since the early 1980s, test scores have inched up, dropout rates have gone down, more high school students have been taking hard courses and more college students have been graduating.

From elementary school through college, the report issued yesterday by two advocacy groups documents evidence of educational progress on 18 different measures. Most of the previously published statistics come from the Education Department, the best source of information about the nation's schools.

Titled "Do You Know . . . The Good News About American Education?" the report paints a startling picture of the nation's schools as improving instead of being stuck in dire straits--the theme of many previous education studies.

"Public schools are getting better, especially within the last 15 years," said John F. Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, which co-sponsored the report with the American Youth Policy Forum.

The report reaches a different conclusion than earlier reports because it tracks trends since 1983, when the ongoing wave of school reforms began, and selectively includes only data that show progress since then.

Average scores on college placement exams since 1983, for instance, increased by 19 points on the Scholastic Assessment Test and nearly one point on the American College Testing program, which has a maximum score of 36. In announcing the most recent SAT scores last August, the College Board cited a different benchmark and noted the national average on a test with a top score of 1,600 was down 41 points since 1969.

Similarly, average scores in mathematics and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most valid measure of student achievement nationwide, were somewhat higher in 1996 than in 1982--but still below what they were in 1969. As math and science scores rose during the same period, the achievement gap between white students and African Americans or Hispanics narrowed slightly in grades 4, 8 and 12.

But in reading and writing, scores on the national tests have generally not risen since 1982.

The new report was intended to make the point that school reforms adopted over the past two decades have produced measurable results, even before any impact from the more recent adoption of tougher statewide educational standards can be detected. The two groups appeared to be responding to critics who maintain none of the reforms has made any difference, a failure said to justify experiments with private school vouchers.

"This report puts the lie to the belief that little or no learning is going on in America's public schools," said Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. "It shows that in the decade of the 1990s, Americans got serious about education, and it is beginning to pay off."

Nina Shokraii Rees, education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, called the report a fair summary of "the things that are encouraging. . . . However, it doesn't give you the entire picture." She said, for instance, just because more high school students have taken harder courses does not necessarily mean that they have fared better on standardized exams or in college.

Among the report's findings:

* The dropout rate declined slightly between 1983 and 1997, down from 14 percent to 11 percent of 16- to 24-year olds. The decrease was larger for African Americans and Hispanics. Last month, another report showed that a slightly different measure, the high school graduation rate, remained at about 85 percent during the 1990s.

* About half of high school students had taken four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies in 1994, more than triple the percentage who had completed that core curriculum in 1982. Also, more students had taken courses in intermediate algebra, trigonometry, chemistry and physics.

* Not only were more students going on to college, more were receiving degrees. In 1998, 31 percent of adults in their late twenties had a bachelor's degree, compared with 26 percent in 1983.

CAPTION: Making the Grade (This graphic was not available)