Claims for jobless benefits came in at 351,000 for the third consecutive week and the four-week moving average extended its decline.

Economists, however, said the U.S. needs to show more strength for the latest drop in the still-high jobless rate to be sustainable.

In the week ended Feb. 25, applications for unemployment insurance payments was unchanged at 351,000, matching consensus estimates, according to Reuters. Jobless claims have registered below the key 400,000 mark -- a level historically associated with an improving labor market -- for 16 consecutive weeks.

The four-week moving average, considered a better measure of labor market trends because it smooths out weekly fluctuations, fell 5,500 to 354,000 - the lowest level since March 2008 for first-time benefit applicants.

The swift drop in the U.S. unemployment rate, to 8.3 percent in January from 9.1 percent in August, has surprised many economists, some of whom remain cautiously optimistic.

The job market is growing, but it's not growing as fast as the data says it is and it will weaken when the economy weakens, said Srinivas Thiruvadanthai, an economist with the Levy Institute Forecasting Center in Mount Kisco, N.Y., ahead of the jobs report.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told lawmakers Wednesday the decline in the unemployment rate was somewhat more rapid than would have been expected given that growth had been at or below trend at the same time. He added, however, that the job market is far from normal.

Bernanke noted the U.S. economy has to show stronger growth to ensure that more Americans can find jobs. His dovish tone suggested further Fed monetary stimulus remain on the table, but he offered no clear signal.

The number of people filing for benefits after an initial week of aid dropped by 2,000, to 3.4 million in the week ended Feb. 18.

The continuing claims figure doesn't include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

The four-week moving average for the week ended Feb. 18 fell 12,250, to 3.44 million from the preceding week's revised average of 3.46 million.