Like many developing tissues, the vertebrate neural tube is patterned by antiparallel morphogen gradients. To understand how these inputs are interpreted, we measured morphogen signaling and target gene expression in mouse embryos and chick ex vivo assays. From these data, we derived and validated a characteristic decoding map that relates morphogen input to the positional identity of neural progenitors. Analysis of the observed responses indicates that the underlying interpretation strategy minimizes patterning errors in response to the joint input of noisy opposing gradients. We reverse-engineered a transcriptional network that provides a mechanistic basis for the observed cell fate decisions and accounts for the precision and dynamics of pattern formation. Together, our data link opposing gradient dynamics in a growing tissue to precise pattern formation.