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12th-grade reading and math scores rise, surprising experts

Reading scores for the nation’s 12th-grade students have increased somewhat since they dropped to a historic low in 2005, according to results of the largest federal test, released Thursday. Average math scores also ticked upward.

Experts said the increases, after years of dismal achievement reports, were surprising because every year the nation’s schools are educating more black and Hispanic students, who on average score lower than whites and Asians.

The black-white achievement gap dates back more than a century, though researchers debate why it persists today. Researchers presume that language barriers pull down scores for Hispanics.

“It’s very good news because you have scores going up despite a demographic trend that pulls scores down,” said Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who directed the Department of Education’s research division in the Bush administration.

The math and reading tests, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and administered by the Department of Education, were given in spring 2009 to a representative national sample of about 50,000 12th-grade students.

Educators and school policymakers closely monitor the national assessment scores much the way corporate leaders and economists watch for changes in the gross domestic product or employment trends.

Much fanfare for GM’s offering, but less-than-solid close

General Motors returned to the stock market Thursday with a car show on Wall Street and a congratulatory message from President Barack Obama, but the shares did not deliver a big surge above the price of the initial public offering.

Shares in the nation’s biggest automaker closed at $34.19 in heavy trading, a 3.6 percent increase over the $33-a-share price of its offering.

Investors had hoped for a larger bounce on the first day of trading for the company, which was rescued last year by a $50 billion government bailout and swift trip through bankruptcy reorganization.

Industry analysts said it appeared that the decision this week by GM and its underwriters to bump up the stock’s target price from the original $26 to $29 range had absorbed the usual first-day rise for an initial public offering.

“That was where the bounce was,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The relatively small increase in the GM share price also meant that the U.S. taxpayers likely captured the best return possible in their first divesture of what was a 61 percent stake in the company.

Too high of a jump could have left GM and the Obama administration open to the charge that they priced the stock too low, abandoning paper profits that could have gone to taxpayers instead.

Traffic roundabouts spread in US

Traffic is going in circles. Armed with mounting data showing that roundabouts are safer, cheaper to maintain and friendlier to the environment, transportation experts around the country are persuading communities to replace traditional intersections with them.

There’s just one problem: Americans don’t know how to navigate them.

“There’s a lot of what I call irrational opposition,” said Eugene R. Russell Sr., a civil engineering professor at Kansas State University and chairman of a national task force on roundabouts, sounding mildly exasperated in a telephone interview. “They just don’t understand roundabouts.”

Many are being forced to learn, though, 25 years after Clark Griswold captured the public’s unease with roundabouts in “European Vacation,” spending a full day circumnavigating London’s famous Lambeth Bridge roundabout unable to escape its inner lane.

The Department of Transportation does not keep statistics on roundabouts, but experts agree that they are proliferating rapidly. They point to Wisconsin, which has built about 100 roundabouts since 2004, and plans to build 52 more in the 2011 construction season alone. Maryland is closing in on 200. Kansas has nearly 100.

All told, there are about 2,000 roundabouts in this country, most built in the last decade, according to Edward Myers, a senior principal at Kittelson & Associates, a transportation engineering and planning firm.

Sweden seeks arrest of Wikileaks chief in rape case

LONDON — The Swedish prosecutor’s office said Thursday that a court in Stockholm had approved its request for arrest warrants to be issued for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for questioning on charges of rape and other sexual offenses. Assange has strongly denied the accusations.

Marianne Ny, director of the Stockholm prosecutor’s office, said in a statement that she had moved to have Assange extradited to Sweden on suspicion of “rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion.” The accusations were first made against Assange, 39, an Australian who created the whistle-blowers’ website, after he traveled to Sweden in mid-August and had brief relationships with two Swedish women that he has described as consensual.

Ny said in a telephone interview that the court had approved two arrest warrants, one applicable within the European Union and the other an international warrant that would be issued through Interpol. She said she had acted because “there is a risk of him fleeing.”

A Swedish court will ultimately decide whether to proceed with the charges, Ny said, as well as whether Assange should be detained or freed on bail.

—John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya, The New York Times