Stocks were little changed on Thursday, a day after suffering their biggest losses in nearly a year, as a slight improvement in weekly jobless claims failed to impress and chain-store sales were lackluster.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 422,000, while economists polled by Reuters forecast 415,000.

We've been through a couple week period here where basically every piece of economic data has just been awful. This was a little less awful, but still awful, said John Canally, investment strategist and economist for LPL Financial in Boston.

Although the big news really is tomorrow's jobs report, so (claims) is really just a preview of that.

Investors seemed reluctant to make big bets ahead of the non-farm payrolls data Friday, which is expected to show 150,000 jobs were added in May, according to a Thomson Reuters poll of economists.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dropped 8.97 points, or 0.07 percent, to 12,281.17. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> added 0.52 points, or 0.04 percent, to 1,315.07. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> gained 10.46 points, or 0.38 percent, to 2,779.65.

The benchmark S&P appeared to be holding the 100-day moving average, a level some analysts suggested as a support level.

Strength in education stocks sent the Nasdaq higher after U.S. officials softened rules that could have cut off tuition aid to programs run by for-profit colleges.

Corinthian Colleges Inc surged 30.1 percent to $5.20, and Apollo Group Inc jumped 12.2 percent to $47.34.

High food and gasoline prices, a sluggish economy and picky shoppers cut into sales at big U.S. retailers in May.

Target Corp edged down 0.8 percent to $48.19, and Gap Inc dropped 2.1 percent to $18.51 as they both missed estimates. The Morgan Stanley retail index <.MVR> fell 0.8 percent.

New orders received by U.S. factories declined in April, partly because of a sharp drop in demand for transportation goods, according to a Commerce Department report.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)