The latest Baltimore City test scores show that while the schools are making progress in raising student achievement levels, they're still far from where they need to be. The percentage of fourth and eighth graders scoring proficient or better in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams went up in every area except fourth grade reading, which declined only slightly since the last time the test was given in 2009. But the improvements still weren't enough to lift Baltimore's scores out of the bottom third of large urban school systems, let alone make them competitive with the best districts nationally.

School officials say they are nevertheless encouraged by the results because they show the reforms put in place over the last several years have been effective in helping poor and minority students improve. Baltimore has a higher proportion of such students than most of the other cities that participate in the Trial Urban District Assessments, a measuring tool that allows statewide NAEP scores to be broken down so that individual city school districts can be compared.

Baltimore's TUDA scores put it ahead of Detroit, Washington, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Fresno in most categories, but behind many other cities. However, the figures show that Baltimore's poor, African-American students, and particularly African-American males, are making gains at a faster rate than their peers anywhere else in the country, including the suburbs.

This is encouraging evidence that the huge investment in school reform Baltimore has made is beginning to pay off. It's well known that performance on standardized tests is closely correlated with family income and that the achievement gap between inner-city African-American students and their white suburban counterparts reflects class divisions as much as ability. The rate of improvement among disadvantaged Baltimore students shows that such barriers can be overcome when the proper teaching strategies and support systems are in place.

That said, however, the fact remains that Baltimore City students will enter a world where they won't be competing just against students from other city school districts or even other suburban schools but against the graduates of schools in China, India, Germany and France. It's a sobering reminder of just how far Baltimore has to go and how difficult the task will be.

The NAEP is a harder test than the Maryland School Assessments, on which students in the city and elsewhere have shown strong gains in recent years, and the Baltimore students' scores reflect that. Just 11 percent of fourth graders scored in the proficient or advanced ranges in reading and just 17 percent in math. The pass rates for eighth graders were 12 percent in reading and 13 percent in math. Unfortunately, the NAEP is probably a better reflection of the skills students actually need — and could be a preview of what we will see as Maryland and other states move to new common standards.

But none of this is reason to give up hope. It took decades of deterioration for the school system to reach its present state, and despite the dynamic leadership of city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, there are no quick fixes. In a global, knowledge-based economy where people freely cross national boundaries in search of opportunities, Baltimore's students, like their counterparts across America, will have to be world-class competitors. That is the challenge of the 21st century, and the city's schools can't be said to be doing their job unless they are able to meet it.